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Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Coming to school menus nationwide: Tainted burgers, fruit and other foods? Reported outbreaks of school-related foodborne illnesses have been rising about 10 percent a year, a congressional study said Tuesday.

The General Accounting Office recommended better coordination among federal agencies that inspect food plants with the state and local agencies that buy most food for schools.

Outbreaks have been traced to a variety of products, including strawberries, milk, hamburgers, spaghetti sauce and fish sticks.

"Parents deserve a federal guarantee that the food their children eat at school is safe," said Rep. Janice Shakowsky, D-Ill.

In 1999, the latest year for which data are available, 50 school-related outbreaks were reported nationwide with 2,900 illnesses, GAO said. Accounting for changes in reporting methods, GAO estimated that reported outbreaks increased 10 percent annually during the 1990s.

About 27 million meals are served in schools each day.

Officials don't know how many outbreaks were caused by lunches served in cafeterias as opposed to food pupils brought from home, but it is believed that school-provided meals were the culprit in most of the cases.

Of those outbreaks with known causes, most were linked to salmonella bacteria and Norwalk-like viruses, named for a town in Ohio where the dangerous virus was identified in the mid-1960s.

In 1998, burritos produced in Chicago are believed to have sickened 1,200 children nationwide. In 1997, more than 300 children in five states became ill after eating strawberries harvested in Mexico and processed in California.

The government has put price above safety in purchasing foods, and that has "resulted in school lunches becoming a dumping ground for ground beef and other agricultural products of questionable safety," Cheryl Roberts of Comer, Ga., told lawmakers at a joint hearing of House and Senate committees.

Her son, then 11, became seriously ill in 1998 after eating an undercooked burger contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

The Agriculture Department heavily subsidizes school lunches and buys 17 percent of the food that is served. State and local agencies buy the rest. USDA "provides little guidance" to those agencies to ensure that the food they are buying is safe, GAO said.

GAO officials also faulted the government's complex regulatory system for food. USDA regulates meat, while the Food and Drug Administration has responsibility for most other foods. Neither agency has authority to require companies to recall tainted products.

At USDA, three separate agencies are involved with the school lunch program: the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which inspects meat, poultry and egg products; the Food and Nutrition Service, which sets nutrition and eligibility standards for meals; and the Agricultural Marketing Service, which buys the food.

"We're lucky to have the safest food system in the world, because that food system is a bureaucratic tangle," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "There's no science behind this, only political tradition."

Creating a single agency to regulate food "would go a long way" toward improving its safety, GAO said.

USDA and FDA officials told the lawmakers they are coordinating more closely to regulate food plants. USDA also decided recently to start allowing state and local agencies to see company records where tainted food had been distributed. USDA also has developed a new process for holding suspected products while authorities investigate outbreaks.

"I'm not going to allow bad actors to sell food, not only to the school lunch program, but to anyone," said Elsa Murano, USDA's undersecretary for food safety.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 76 million Americans suffer from foodborne illnesses each year, and 5,000 die.

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