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What are your kids eating for lunch? Contrasting food safety directives

16.oct.03, Stacey Smith and Brae Surgeoner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

16.oct.03, Stacey Smith and Brae Surgeoner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
A sandwich, carrot sticks, cookies and an apple - the typical brown bag lunch. Maybe once a week, warm soup in a thermos or a few dollars to buy something at the cafeteria. This week, sandwiches made from the weekend’s leftover turkey will likely be popular but will certainly lose their luster by Thursday. In addition to the weekly battle of packing lunches, what is the best approach to ensure that - whatever creative solutions parents and kids come up with each week - school lunches are safe?
The Soil Association - the U.K.’s leading organic agriculture promoter and certification body - recently advocated for radical change in government-funded public school lunch programs. Drawing from their Food For Life Report, the Association recommended that, healthier meals sourced from organic and local food must be made available to school-age children. Two days later, Marion Burros reported in the New York Times that only four U.S. states out of seventeen surveyed plan to offer irradiated beef to their school districts beginning in January 2004. This despite the USDA’s approval and endorsement of the technology - a technology shown to eliminate the number of harmful pathogens associated with food-borne illness such as E. coli and Salmonella by 99.9 per cent. The two stories raise important, albeit contrasting food safety and policy concerns.
Microbial hazards top the food threat list. It is estimated that 1 in 4 Americans experiences food- or water-borne illness each year; in Canada this ratio translates to 7.5 million illnesses annually. The elderly, persons with compromised immune systems, and children are at the greatest risk to falling victim to these illnesses. Irradiation is an additional safety measure to control the spread of harmful pathogens that may be present in foods. It does not replace the basic proper food handling practices that must be adhered to along the farm-to-fork chain.
Like all technologies, vigorous research and testing has been conducted on irradiation since the 1930s because there are risks associated with the process. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Center for Consumer Research have made assurances that these issues have been addressed, American school boards continue to examine the benefits and risks of the technology. In July, Monroe Central in Indiana announced that it would be one of the first schools in the U.S. to offer irradiated ground beef in their school lunches. Along with educational resources on the technology for parents and kids, the school will still be offering a choice of non-irradiated beef.
While the public still perceives pesticides, preservatives and other food additives as hazardous food components, these have not been shown to cause illness or other health complications comparable in numbers to those caused by microbial or viral contamination. Despite the considerable commentary on the subject, organic foods have not been proven to be more nutritious, better tasting or offer reduced food safety risk. Organic farmers still use chemicals to protect against pests, and many processed organic products will still contain fats, sugars, salts and preservatives just conventional equals. The Soil Association may have valid concerns in wanting to improve the quality of public school lunches in the U.K., but the argument continues: organic is a production system and should not be publicized as a synonym for safety or health.
Why then would the school system in England and Wales overhaul the lunch program with organic, unprocessed foods at an estimated additional cost of £200 million a year? The measure does little to address the pathogenic threats to children’s health, such as E. coli O157:H7 that is responsible for up to 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths each year in the U.S. It seems that public policy on both sides of the Atlantic is misdirected when it comes to addressing food safety issues. In the U.K. the Soil Association continues to push unfounded claims on the safety of organic food to a nation with a bleak history of handling food safety risks and a growing fear of conventional food production. In the U.S., the public is seemingly falling victim to the fear of the unknown, food irradiation.
Kids at lunch are more concerned with their friends and the conversation than the meal they brought from home or the one dished up at the cafeteria. Someone or some combination of people is responsible for the safety of that food. The answer may not be serving all organic, or all irradiated, but having alternatives available, so that families who have differing opinions on food safety have choices.
Stacey Smith and Brae Surgeoner are researchers with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph. ssmith07@uoguelph.ca and bsurgeon@uoguelph.ca