How Safe Are School Lunches?

No one ever confused school lunch with a gourmet meal. But you'd think parents could count on their children getting safe, nutritious food.

When Primetime producers went on surprise inspections of school cafeterias, however, they found stomach-turning conditions that parents never get to see: dead rodents just feet from where food was being prepared, roaches crawling along filthy floors, dishwashers that don't clean children's trays, and food being kept at temperatures where potentially dangerous bacteria can thrive.

Experts who track food safety in schools say such conditions can be found across the country — and that they put children at risk. "Those districts who continue to operate like this are surely going to have a major food-borne illness at some point. It's almost a guarantee," said food consultant Norm Greenberger, who has visited hundreds of school cafeterias.

School Food Illnesses on the Rise

Schools have been feeding children lunch since the National School Lunch Act of 1946. The idea was that nutritious meals would help children grow and learn. But government figures show that over the past decade there have been 300 outbreaks of food illness in schools, affecting 16,000 students — and that such incidents are rising by 10 percent a year.

In 1996, bacteria in spaghetti served at five schools in Sacramento, Calif., made 400 children sick. In 1998, 1,200 students in seven states became ill after eating burritos from a plant in Chicago.

Also in 1998, 12 children became infected with E. coli bacteria that health officials linked to beef tacos served at rural Finley Elementary School in Washington state. One of the children, a 2-year-old girl who doctors believe contracted the infection from a sibling or playmate, was so seriously ill that doctors say she will need kidney transplants before she turns 8.

Starting at the Source

Primetime started its school lunch investigation at the source: the processing plants that supply meat to schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program, purchases enough food to feed 27 million children every day. The department is also responsible for inspecting every meat plant that supplies schools.

For the Primetime segment, a safety inspector agreed to take a hidden camera to a plant that processes more than a million pounds of chicken for schools each year. The inspector, who requested anonymity, found several chickens with yellow sores indicating an infection under the skin, as well as potentially hazardous fecal matter. The inspector also found filth in machines that box chicken and processing equipment dripping with chicken fat. Documents obtained by Primetime showed that the plant had repeatedly failed tests for salmonella and inspectors say they had demanded improvements, but, they said, the plant kept selling chicken for consumption at schools.

When shown the video, Elsa Murano, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, said it was "upsetting to say the least." She said the department has "revolutionized" its meat inspection system in the past four or five years, toughening health regulations for plants that process meat.

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