"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," the report noted.
According to the GAO, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which oversees federal school meal programs, did not always ensure that states and schools received timely and complete notification about suspect food provided to schools through the federal program. The government provides schools with 15 to 20 percent of the food served in cafeterias, which is consumed by 30 million students.
The report examined recalls of beef, peanut butter, and canned vegetables. Of the three, the schools were informed promptly in only one instance. Schools were told to stop serving certain beef products after a video aired showing inhumane treatment of animals at the processing plant, the GAO found. But in later recalls involving peanut butter and canned vegetables, schools were not told to hold and not serve the affected products until weeks after the recalls were made public. (As we reported earlier, there were nine deaths and 700 illnesses associated with the peanut recall.)
The GAO report goes on to detail problems the schools had disposing of the food—some landfills would not accept it—and getting reimbursed for recall-related expenses was difficult.
The delays in notifying schools point to a lack of communication among an alphabet soup of agencies responsible for food safety including the USDA, FNS, FDA (Food and Drug Administraion) and FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service). The GAO recommends better coordination among agencies as well as better follow-up to ensure that recalls are carried out in schools effectively.