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Globe Editorial

School food: serving up salmonella and E. coli

January 3, 2010

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Not to give fast-food companies any bright ideas, but a wicked ad campaign could show Ronald McDonald, the Burger King, and the KFC colonel waiting outside America’s high schools with Pied Piper smiles as students flee buildings at lunch time. A USA Today investigative report found that the nation’s fast-food franchises test their beef far more stringently for harmful salmonella or E. coli bacteria than the US Department of Agriculture does for the beef it purchases for the National School Lunch Program. The newspaper found that the government will buy beef with generic E. coli counts 10 times the amount that goes into Jack in the Box burgers. The USDA still purchases the meat of old, “spent hens,’’ a practice long ago discarded by KFC and Campbell Soup because the meat is tougher and there’s a possibility that older chickens have more bone splinters that may aid the transmission of salmonella.

For decades, the mediocre quality of school lunches has been the butt of student jokes and sober Government Accountability Office reports. The laudable intention of President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make the school lunch program a more nutritious tool against obesity and hunger does not stand a chance if the perception grows that school food is not only dull, but dangerous. The USDA has a lot on its plate, but it can ill afford parent panic over cafeteria cutlets. The agency must revise its standards immediately before Ronald McDonald, the Burger King, and the colonel stare at us on TV to say with a straight - and legitimate - face, “We’re more safe than your school lunch.’’

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