Warning: School lunch may be hazardous to health
When I was in high school, one of the most infamous choices on the cafeteria menu was “Soup with Melted Spoon.” This was soup — chicken noodle, tomato, beef something or other — served up so hot that the plastic spoon softened and transformed into a gooey glop that looked like a withering flower. It was quite an educational experience. Imagine the science applications. What’s the boiling point of plastic? How many sips do you have to take until you get second degree burns on your tongue? Can the human body digest plastic?
Well it turns out that school lunches today present a health hazard of a different sort. USA Today reports that the government is providing schools with millions of pounds of meat that wouldn’t make the cut at fast food restaurants like KFC or Mickey D’s. The damning report reveals that fast food chains and retailers like Costco test their meat five to 10 times more than the USDA tests the meat it sends to schools.
While the meat industry has tightened its standards in recent years, the Agricultural Marketing Service, the agency that buys meat for schools, hasn’t changed its standards since 2000. And that’s unconscionable, especially given that for many of the students who qualify for free lunch, the food served at school is their best — or only — meal of the day.
“We simply are not giving our kids in schools the same level of quality and safety as you get when you go to many fast-food restaurants,” says J. Glenn Morris, professor of medicine and director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. “We are not using those same standards.”
You always know that officials don’t have a reasonable explanation for a report like this when they won’t sit down for an interview and reply to a reporter’s questions with written statements. And that’s exactly the response that USA Today got from an AMS administrator and Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack. A review of testing requirements for beef sent to schools is set for next year. And that’s not soon enough, given the potential life-shattering effects of food-borne illnesses. (Warning: If you enjoy a burger every now and then, don’t read the link, because you just might swear off beef for good.)
How did this happen? It’s not about money, according to experts quoted in the article.
The AMS could “very easily” raise the standards for federally purchased school lunch meat, says Barry Carpenter, a former AMS official who helped set up the current sampling and testing requirements in 2000. “If I was still at AMS, I’d say, ‘Where are we (with today’s rules) and where do we need to tighten them?’ “
Carpenter, now head of the National Meat Association, notes that raising AMS standards “wouldn’t cost much,” and it would help combat perceptions that the school lunch program is “a market of last resort” for meat that can’t pass muster with commercial buyers.
It’s time to change the menu before this becomes downright Dickensian.