How HACCP Curbs Contamination in the School Lunch System

contaminated school lunch
contaminated school lunch

In the face of the inevitable annual flurry of resolutions in the New Year surrounding health, diet, and exercise, we at Berkshire are going against the flow and providing you, our diet-beleaguered readers, with respite from the onslaught of accusatory finger wagging. Far be it from us to promulgate the miserable ‘New Year, New You’ message that so well serves the Diet-Industrial-Complex with its ego-withering dictats on how much (little?) to eat and how often (too often?) to hit the gym. In fact, to stubbornly underscore our point, let’s take a few moments to reminisce on our favorite foods. Let’s pause to recall the yeasty-cheesy aromatics of deep-dish pizza. Or how about the salty sweetness of a burger slathered in ketchup? And let’s not forget the insanely appetizing notes of French fries crisping in the fryer. Memories of these childhood favorites transport us back to a time in which we spared nary a thought for our waistlines nor our cholesterol counts. An era when middle-age spread was not yet ‘a thing,’ gravity had not begun to exert its evil downward pull on our various body parts, and we were not yet on the track to paying for our cardiologist’s Caribbean pied à terre

Ah yes, those were the days. When food was pleasure and lunch was just…lunch. No strings, no worries. But there was, as we now recall, also a dark side. The school lunch menu in particular was peppered with culinary landmines, the likes of which could explode at any time. ‘Options’ such as the plate of sadly wilting salad greens with that dressing, the origin of which you could never quite determine. Or the baleful dish of boiled vegetables, swimming in condensed steam and prolonged simmering. Or the utter disaster that is the average school cafeteria meatloaf, pooling in grease and almost indistinguishable from a slab of epoxied sawdust. Yes, maybe a return to those halcyon days of institutionalized cuisine is not so desirable after all.

According to an article in CBS New York, the food served to public school students in multiple cafeterias was found to be contaminated.

But to our then untrained palate, it wasn’t all bad and one thing we did used to be able to count on was that, by and large, it was safe. Yes, the school lunch menu – a product of the $11.7 billion National School Lunch Program that feeds more than 31 million children daily – could be an archetype of poor food choices from a health and nutrition standpoint but it rarely did actual harm.(1) These days, we can’t be so sure. According to an article in CBS New York, the food served to public school students in multiple cafeterias was found to be contaminated.(2) From green fungal spots on egg and cheese sandwiches to chicken tenders containing metal shards and pizzas exhibiting mold, the New York Department of Education took a dim view of the quality control issues with the director of Supply Chain Management issuing a memo prohibiting the serving of affected items. 

And, of course, the New York school system is not the only one nationwide to face issues with dangerous institutionalized catering. Across the country in California’s San Diego County, no fewer than 22 children ranging in age from kindergartners to 7th grade were sickened by a beverage served at an elementary school cafeteria.(3) The likely culprit? Milk gone bad. Although food can become tainted in myriad ways – from being left out for too long, to being handled by someone who is ill or a stranger to correct hygiene practices – one of the easiest ways for milk to sour is, of course, improper storage. In dairy products, illness-causing bacteria can multiply extremely rapidly when storage conditions are less than optimal. According to data presented by the Australian Department of Health, for example, in the absence of adequate refrigeration 100 single bacteria can multiply on food to become over 50,000 units within 3 hours. And even once inside the digestive tract of the human body, these bacteria will continue to multiply, allowing food poisoning to occur well after exposure.(4)

And what are the symptoms of food poisoning and why should we be concerned? As some 80 children and a handful of teachers in the Italian city of Pescara learned in June of last year, food contaminated with toxins can result in stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. And for children, with their smaller bodies and less robust constitutions, the toll can be greater than it is for adults, with dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and mental impairment presenting an elevated danger.

Last December, for example, the USDA released a new set of guidelines aimed at increasing flexibility within the school meals system.

And these dangers are to be borne in mind when considering the regulatory role played by bodies such as the USDA in the formulation and maintenance of standards for foods in schools. Interestingly, the emphasis seems to be on the nutritional quality of the options, not on their safety. Last December, for example, the USDA released a new set of guidelines aimed at increasing flexibility within the school meals system. Overturning Obama-era regulation that mandated all grains served within the program to be whole grain-rich (that is, more than 50% whole grain), the new set of guidelines also slows down the rate at which the overall sodium content of the meals must be reduced, and broadens the options for the inclusion of dairy-based milks. Termed the ‘Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibility for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements,’ this final rule has been met with both criticism and praise. The American Heart Association – scarcely a body known for a reactionary, knee-jerk response – lamented the government’s decision to ‘weaken the standards, despite overwhelming opposition, [and] reverse our progress toward ensuring our nation’s children receive healthy meals at school that help them attain better long-term health and academic success.’(5) However, in an article appearing in Food Business News, a publication of Sosland Publishing Company, an information resource for the food industry, Gay Anderson takes a more pragmatic approach. President of the School Nutrition Association, a national non-profit organization for nutrition professionals working within the education system, Anderson expresses enthusiasm for the ruling: “Schools will continue to meet strong nutrition standards but can prepare meals that appeal to a wide range of students.”(6) And getting the kids to actually eat the meals is half of the battle, as noted by then Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue: “If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted. We all have the same goals in mind: the health and development of our young people. U.S.D.A. trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition.”(7)

And as any parent will attest, Perdue has a point. In 2009, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver addressed the issue in Huntington, WV, a city that had recently been named the unhealthiest in America. Horrified at what he saw in the kitchen of the Central City Elementary School, Oliver – who by the arguably tender age of 25 had cooked for the British Prime Minister, founded a media empire that netted him over $1million annually, and had revolutionized the British school meal system to the tune of $1billion in government funding – determined to change that. Replacing the usual breakfast pizza with made-from-scratch dishes, Oliver fought to tempt the kids with real food crafted from fresh, organic, and high quality ingredients.

Logically, this adventure should have read like a culinary fairytale, with images of beaming children tucking delightedly into dishes like ‘tuna pasta bake with seven vegetables, rainbow salad with creamy dressing,’ their academic standards rising with every nutritious, brain-nourishing bite. But it did not. The reason? The kids simply did not like the new menu. Accustomed to the ‘same sludge’ as prior to Oliver’s arrival, a full 77% of the students reported they were ‘very unhappy’ with the food, their daily calories ending up in the trash.(8) Not cool, kids, not cool.

Be that as it may, if we accept that we can offer our children the best in nutrient-dense options and they’ll still turn back to pizza and burgers, perhaps the only thing we can do is to ensure that those options are safe to consume. In the interests of not repeating mistakes of the past and jeopardizing the health and well-being of more children, what is the best path forward?

Fundamentally, it all comes down to the ability to create a culture of food safety and that invokes one simple word: training.

At the roots, excellence in food safety is built upon the consistent application of and adherence to superlative standards in professional hygiene behaviors. According to the Food-Safe Schools Action Guide, a document issued by the USDA aimed at school nutrition directors, the ‘National School Lunch Act requires that schools have a food safety program [which] must be based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) principles.’(9) So, it is no longer adequate simply to maintain basic hygiene – with tender lives at stake, a rigorous protocol is needed to develop a framework wherein food-safe behaviors become second nature. In conjunction with the HACCP, policies and protocols create a ‘food safety blueprint’ for the community wherein a review of current practices leads to strengthening actions taken and the communication of a generalized culture of safety. And if that sounds a little too theoretical, here are a couple of concrete ways in which it is realized…

Per the ‘Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’ (HHFKA) of 2010, all food safety program requirements based on HACCP principles are not only confined to the areas typically associated with food service but instead ‘must be applied to any location where food is stored, prepared, or served as part of school nutrition programs; not just the cafeteria.’(10) Additionally, all nutrition employees within a school district should ideally have received food safety training, have access to continuing education, and also be familiar with written SOPs and policies that regulate behaviors. Moreover, published materials should also address policies for the management of food allergies, the implementation of a food defense plan, best practices in response to a food recall, and the importance of dynamic action plans in the face of an outbreak of foodborne illness. Many of the guideline line items are obvious and common-sensical – the thorough washing of hands before and after touching food items, trash cans, utensils, using the bathroom, touching the face or hair, or blowing the nose – while others underscore the role of active managerial control (AMC) in determining such factors as the extent to which a supplier is adequately trained in food safety, the tracking of inventory along the supply chain, or the maintenance of safety accreditation for personnel.

And if all of this seems like a lot of effort, we should reflect on what’s at stake. As food preparers in Waipahu Elementary School, Hawaii, recently learned, even leftover food can be a vehicle for contamination if not correctly handled. Following an outbreak of poisoning which sickened thirty students and two members of staff, bacteria were found in spaghetti that had been improperly cooled when prepared the preceding day and not correctly re-heated upon serving. As we know from our earlier article on Contamination Control of Infant Formula, leftovers should be rapidly cooled to avoid the possibility of offering a breeding ground for contamination – a point we made when discussing so-called ‘fried rice syndrome.’(11) And really, all that was required to prevent this from occurring was the simple adherence to best practices in food service. Storing food correctly and ensuring that it is served at a safe temperature is Food Science 101. It really does not take a huge amount of effort or thought to do this correctly, efficiently, and safely. So let’s push for this model in the future. Let’s demand better for our children. After all, as we noted at the top of the article, what’s at play here is the health of some 31 million children daily, consumers within an industry that has $11.7 billion at its disposal. As a domestic budget that would seem to represent a substantial chunk of change and, with that level of resources, we can’t help but feel that our children deserve more!

Do you shudder at the memory of school lunches or do look back fondly? What was your favorite meal and what did you dread/ Do you feel concern regarding the current state of the school lunch program? We’d love to know your thoughts!


  6. ibid
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  10. ibid
  11. The guidelines state that the temperature of items should be reduced from 140ºF to 70ºF within 2 hours and to 45ºF within 4 hours to be safe, but clearly this did not occur in Hawaii and the children suffered the consequences.
Article Name
No Such Thing as a Free Lunch? How HACCP Curbs Contamination in the School Lunch System
Storing food correctly so that it is served safely is Food Science 101. It really does not take a huge amount of effort or thought to do this safely.
Publisher Name
Berkshire Corporation
Publisher Logo

Leave a Reply