The Safety Factor

By Robin L. Flanigan

Food-borne illnesses in schools made up just 3 percent of reported outbreaks nationwide in the 1990s, according to the latest analysis available from the U.S. General Accounting Office. That translates to about 195 incidents in a decade -- a miniscule number, considering the 29 million lunches served in school cafeterias each school day.

But if you’re an administrator in a district hit with one of those illnesses, the problem can be catastrophic.

Superintendent David Schmidt still considers the E. coli outbreak in his Waukesha, Wis., school district just over five years ago the toughest stretch of his career. After a child with diarrhea apparently contaminated a self-service food bar in the Bethesda Elementary School cafeteria, four children were hospitalized and three were treated for hemolytic uremic syndrome, a sometimes-fatal condition that attacks the kidneys. Some 20 other youngsters also became ill.

“Superintendents have a lot of challenges -- the political, the personal, the human,” says Schmidt. “In this case, we had children in the hospital. I was going there and talking with their parents and hoping for the best, and it doesn’t get any more frightening than that. You just pray that all is going to turn out well.”

While school cafeterias boast an excellent safety record overall, frightening scenarios like this do occur, and some signs suggest that outbreaks of food-borne illness are happening more often. The number of such incidents reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rose by 56 percent from 1990 to 1997, the most recent period studied by the Atlanta-based federal health agency.

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