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School Food

School Food: Don’t Dismiss Kids’ Complaints About School Lunches So Quickly

By David Jackson
Chicago Tribune

From the November/December 2002 issue of IRE Journal

See the Chicago Tribune series “School Food Safety.”

Our story was launched not by a tip, but by a trickle of small, easy-to-ignore complaints from Chicago parents who said their kids were getting sick from and freedom of information requests to several school food.

But after a six-month investigation, we reached an unexpected conclusion: There are dangerous flaws in America’s food safety system.

Specifically, the number of U.S. school-food illness outbreaks has been rising since 1990, and improved reporting measures don’t account for the change. Records gathered from several sources detailed the hidden story of the largest U.S. food-borne outbreak in recent history, a 1998 case that sickened more than 1,200 students in at least seven states.

The Tribune’s two-part report led to a joint U.S. Senate-House hearing and an investigation by the U.S. General Accounting Office. (The GAO, in report GAO-02-669T, confirmed the newspaper’s findings.)At the spring congressional hearings, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the reversal of a key, industry-backed confidentiality regulation that blocked state and local authorities from access to food company shipping records during an outbreak. Now, having records available will enable local authorities to trace contaminated food and protect children from further harm.

In addition, the stories prompted a swift and sweeping overhaul of the Chicago school system’s food contracts and safety practices.

Contaminated school meals are important because children whose immune systems are still developing can be severely injured by pathogens that give adults only mild indigestion. It’s also important to remember that food safety is a sprawling topic that touches everyday lives and raises national security concerns.

The safety of America’s food is overseen by a complex array of federal, state and local agencies. The fractured government inspection and health system seemed at first like a regulatory maze, but the reporting trick was simple: Take advantage of the chaos by directing queries and freedom of information requests to several federal, state and local government agencies. Information withheld by one may be released by another.

First, some reporting basics:

  • How do you learn about food borne illness outbreaks?

    Federal, state, county and municipal public health departments all may investigate specific outbreaks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes on its Web site (www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/outbreak/us_outb.htm) summary data on the more than 5, 000 food-borne illness outbreaks reported to the CDC by state and local health authorities since 1990. The Web site shows the month and year of any food-borne illness outbreak reported to the CDC, the state where it took place, the number of people injured and the type of food and pathogen implicated. I tested and explored this database -which has many shortcomings – in numerous conversations with government epidemiologists.

    To get more detail on specific outbreaks, request the government case files. If the CDC investigates an outbreak, its epidemiologists will compile reports, ingredient matrixes, e-mail and correspondence, patient food histories and laboratory test results. The CDC did not respond properly to Tribune FOIA requests, but CDC records sometimes were duplicated in state and local case files. Because outbreak case files contain private information on victims, I asked agencies to redact personally identifying information on children and private citizens.

  • Who inspects the factories where food is made?

    Again, there are many layers of government oversight. On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees plants that use meat, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in charge of non-meat plants. Publicly available records from these federal agencies include inspection reports, citations, fine and seizure records, as well as case files on specific recalls linked to outbreaks. FOIA-requested case files pertaining to USDA-overseen recalls of bacteria-contaminated meat took two to six months for that agency to produce.

    Look at the recall listings posted on the Web sites of the U.S. Agriculture Department (www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/recalls/recsumm.htm) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov/opacom/Enforce.html). In and of itself, a recall doesn’t indicate an unsafe factory: Food can be recalled if the packaging labels contain harmless errors or the water weight is off, and a factory can be punished with a recall because it unwittingly accepts contaminated food from a downstream supplier. But a close study of the lists may yield cases that make you ask, “What happened here?”

    To learn whether a particular food plant is infested with rodents, cited for using spoiled meat or equipped with rust-caked machinery, also request the inspection records and case files of state health and agricultural agencies, and county and municipal public health departments.

    Request inspection and enforcement records from federal, state and local environmental protection agencies. Ask to see local building and fire department records on the factories that interest you. Sometimes separate inspections are conducted by local electrical and water divisions.

  • What other records help?

To understand precisely what took place during a particular school-food illness outbreak, ask to see the case files and correspondence of local, state, and federal school authorities.

Search for lawsuits and criminal cases involving food companies and their officers in federal, state and local courts. Personnel and contract disputes can provide valuable sources and unexpected reporting avenues.

Food plants can be shrouded in opaque layers of corporate control. To help lift the veil, search Lexis-Nexis or any other available databases for corporations linked to the addresses and post office boxes of the food companies and their officers. Run every company through the same set of records checks.

  • What computer databases are useful?

Tribune database editor Geoff Dougherty created FOIA requests for USDA computer files on all inspections of U.S. meat plants since 1997. Using SAS and SPSS software to analyze the 80 million inspection records, Dougherty calculated a rate of violations per inspection hour at each factory. Meat plants that sold to the $5 billion-a-year National School Lunch Program had a higher rate of violations than meat plants that do not, the analysis showed.

Dougherty ran a computer analysis linking Chicago school illness outbreaks to government lunch subsidies (a key childhood poverty indicator). The neediest children were more at risk.

Downloading recall data from USDA’s Web site and adding other information, I built a database of recalls of meat that contained potentially deadly bacteria from 1982 through 2000.

I also requested a database showing all USDA detentions and seizures of adulterated and misbranded meat since 1998. The database signaled filth and rat infestation at regional cold storage warehouses where school lunch food is held.

  • What about human sources?

Seek out food plant inspectors from the USDA and FDA, as well as state and local public health agencies. These shoe-leather professionals can be superb teachers. Ask open-ended questions about the things that bother them, and let these concerns inform your reporting. Drop in and visit food company officials. Few reporters actually show up in their offices, and many are willing to talk. And talk to law enforcement authorities who prosecute the most egregious food safety violations, those involving willful misconduct.

  • What about the cleanliness of school cafeterias?

Here is the last but possibly most important part of the story: When food-borne illness outbreaks occur, the problem may lie not in the manufacturing plants, but in unsanitary practices in the kitchens and cafeterias where meals are heated and served. To document this final link in the food chain, the reporter must eat a lot of little lunches.

I asked the Chicago Department of Public Health to allow me to review every inspection report on every school kitchen or cafeteria for two years. The thousands of pages of handwritten reports showed rodent infestation in more than a quarter of the city’s school lunchrooms and kitchens, chips of lead-based paint floating down on cooking pans, and walls slicked with chronic grime. Frozen entrees wrapped in cellophane were warmed and left to sit for hours in plastic containers that did not hold a safe temperature. Children’s illness complaints were mishandled and brushed aside.

School officials also may do inspections and compile reports. Chicago school officials were able to provide records of only 16 school-food outbreaks since 1999. But the Chicago Department of Public Health documented 41 suspected food poisoning incidents through schools in which at least 215 children were sickened. State and federal officials were notified of none of the Chicago cases.

To make the information hunt a little more complicated, your district’s school cafeterias may be run by private contractors. A growing number of U.S. school districts – especially those that serve poor children – are turning to global food management conglomerates such as Sodexho Inc. or Compass Group. Run the same records checks for these giant companies and obtain copies of government contracts and correspondence.

Is it worth the work?

The investigative reporter’s job is not simply to chronicle sweeping, oceanic social trends, like the rising number of school-food illness outbreaks. It is to identify the people who drive these seemingly impersonal forces. I consider the central achievement of the reporting to be its profile of food industry veteran Oscar Munoz, whose Chicago tortilla plant was linked to 1, 200 school illnesses in seven states. No government food safety agency inspected Munoz’s unmarked factory during the eight months in 1998 when it produced the tortillas implicated in those outbreaks. The best-intentioned school cafeteria managers had no way of knowing what they were feeding their children.

Munoz and his company faced no government sanctions. Following a flurry of inspections prompted by the 1998 outbreak, his factory was not visited by any government food safety agency from the summer of 1999 until the publication of our report, although it continued to supply school food programs.

After the 1998 outbreaks, Munoz contracted with a new school food supplier, Que Tal? Inc. That company closed down last year after recalling school lunch burritos sent to five states because samples tested positive for the Listeria pathogen.

David Jackson is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. During a stint at The Washington Post, he shared the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for public service. At the Tribune, his work was a Pulitzer finalist in 1996 and 2000.

This story is reprinted with permission from Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting. Check out their Web site at www.ire.org.

IRE offers a discount on subscriptions to the IRE Journal for high school newsrooms. To find out more, send an e-mail to journal@ire.org.