School Meal Programs:

Changes to Federal Agencies' Procedures Could Reduce Risk of School Children Consuming Recalled Food

GAO-09-649: Published: Aug 20, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 22, 2009.

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Over the past few years, several food recalls, such as for beef and peanut products, have affected schools. It is especially important that recalls affecting schools be carried out efficiently and effectively because young children have a higher risk of complications from food-borne illnesses. GAO was asked to determine how federal agencies (1) notified states and schools about food recalls, (2) advised states and schools about disposal and reimbursement of recalled food, and (3) ensured that recalls were being carried out effectively. To do this, GAO reviewed and analyzed relevant documents and interviewed federal and state officials, as well as officials from 23 school districts that had experience with at least one of four recent cases involving the safety of food in the school lunch program.

Despite its efforts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which oversees federal school meals programs, did not always ensure that states and schools received timely and complete notification about suspect food products provided to schools through the federal commodity program. The federal commodity program provides food to schools at no cost to the schools, and accounts for 15 to 20 percent of food served in school meals. During 3 recent recalls, FNS notified states, but in only one case did it inform schools to hold and not serve suspect foods prior to an official recall of commodity products. When a videotape aired by the media showed inhumane treatment of cattle at a plant that provided beef to the commodity program, FNS told states to have schools stop serving the company's beef weeks before the official recall of commodity beef was announced. However, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled suspect peanut products and canned vegetables in two other cases, FNS did not inform states and schools to hold and not serve the companies' commodity products until the recalls were expanded to include the companies' commodity products--weeks later. FNS's initial notification to states regarding recalls did not provide complete information on the full range of products affected. Instead, states and schools continued to receive information on multiple other recalled products over time. It sometimes took states and schools a week or more to determine what additional products were subject to a recall, during which time they unknowingly served affected products. FNS provided instructions for disposal and reimbursement of recalled products to states who, in turn, provided instructions to schools but, nonetheless, some schools experienced problems. Some schools reported to GAO problems in finding landfills that would accept large quantities of recalled products. Some schools also reported that reimbursement instructions were not clear, reimbursement was delayed for months, and that all of their expenses related to the recalls were not reimbursed. Although both USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and the FDA procedures direct them to conduct recall quality checks, neither included thousands of schools that had received recalled USDA-commodities products for the beef and peanut recalls because they thought FNS conducted these checks. As a result, they were unable to ensure that the recalls were being carried out effectively by schools. FNS officials said that they did not conduct any kind of systematic quality checks of schools receiving recalled commodities, because they relied on FSIS and FDA to conduct such checks. FDA did include schools in its canned vegetable recall audit checks, and some may have received recalled-commodity canned vegetables. However, because FDA does not systematically sample for schools or analyze results of the quality checks for the group, the agency cannot be assured that the recall was carried out effectively in schools.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS and that the Secretary of HHS should direct FDA to jointly establish a time frame for completing a memorandum of understanding on how FNS and FDA will communicate during FDA investigations and recalls that may involve USDA commodities for the school meal programs, which should specifically address how FDA will include FNS in its prerecall deliberations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, Farm Service Agency, and Food and Nutrition Service entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the HHS' Food and Drug Administration effective September 29, 2011. The purpose of the Memorandum is to establish a framework for the Parties to communicate and cooperate in the timely and full exchange of information to optimize controls essential to mitigate the potential for the distribution or use of USDA foods which may be unsafe.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS and that the Secretary of HHS should direct FDA to jointly establish a time frame for completing a memorandum of understanding on how FNS and FDA will communicate during FDA investigations and recalls that may involve USDA commodities for the school meal programs, which should specifically address how FDA will include FNS in its prerecall deliberations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service, Farm Service Agency, and Food and Nutrition Service entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Food and Drug Administration effective September 29, 2011. The purpose of the Memorandum is to establish a framework for the Parties to communicate and cooperate in the timely and full exchange of information to optimize controls essential to minimizing the potential for the distribution or use of USDA Foods which may be unsafe.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS to develop guidelines, in consultations with the Agriculrural Marketing Service (AMS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA), to be used for determining whether or not to institute an administrative hold on suspect commodities for school meal programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Food and Nutrition Service has established agreements with the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Farm Service Agency for assessing and determining appropriate action on commodity complaints pertaining to food safety issues.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS to work with states to explore ways for states to speed notification to schools.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Food and Nutrition Service reported that it now provides a service, the USDA Foods State Emergency Notification System (SENS), to states. The service allows states to send alert messages to schools during a recall or other food emergency affecting USDA foods.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS to improve the timeliness and completeness of direct communication between FNS and schools about holds and recalls, such as through the commodity alert system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA reported that the Food and Nutrition has promoted the Commodity Alert System to schools on its website, in newsletters, and at conferences. The Commodity Alert System is highlighted in publications, such as the "Inventory and Management Tracking Guide:" and the "Responding to a Food Recall" manual.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS to take the lead among USDA agencies to establish a time frame in which it will improve the USDA commodity hold and recall procedures to address the role of processors and determine distributors' involvement with processed products, which may contain recalled ingredients, to facilitate providing more timely and complete information to schools.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA issued a manual, "Responding to a Food Recall: Procedures for Recalls of USDA Foods," which addresses the role of distributors and processors during a food recall.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS to revise its procedures to provide states with more specific instructions for schools on how to dispose of recalled commodities and obtain timely reimbursement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA issued a manual, "Responding to a Food Recall: Procedures for Recalls of USDA Foods," which addresses the disposal of recalled commodities and reimbursement.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct FNS to institute a systematic quality check procedure to ensure that FNS holds on foods and products used by schools are carried out effectively.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) reporting system provides a quality check for commodities on which FNS has placed a hold.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of Agriculture direct FSIS to revise its procedures to ensure that schools are included in effectiveness checks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, Directive 8080.1, Recall of Meat and Poultry Products was revised. The Directive provides for effectiveness checks at schools.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of HHS should direct FDA to revise the Recall Audit Check Report form to include a consignee prompt for schools.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FDA reported that this was completed and the FDA form now has a box for type of consignee as "school."

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of HHS should direct FDA to revise FDA procedures to ensure schools are included in audit checks, either by drawing a separate schools-only sample or providing a selection preference for schools.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FDA revised its Regulatory Procedures Manual for recalls to include instructions to ensure that consignees who received recalled products that were purchased for use in a domestic nutrition assistance program (e.g. National School Lunch Program) are included in audit checks.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the safety of foods provided to children through the school meal programs, and to make improvements in three areas related to recalls affecting schools: interagency coordination; notification and instructions to states and schools; and monitoring effectiveness, the Secretary of HHS should direct FDA to revise FDA procedures to ensure analysis of its audit checks is documented, and any problems with recalls or audit checks affecting consignees involved with schools identified and acted upon.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FDA updated its Regulatory Procedures Manual section on recall procedures for evaluating audit checks and ensuring that appropriate and timely follow-up action is taken for issues affecting school lunch programs. FDA reports it is also working on an enhancement of its FDA Recall Enterprise System that will incorporate an audit check function that is expected to provide for better documenting and tracking of recall audit checks.

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