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USDA tightening buy-American policy for school lunches

April 18, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Agriculture Department is developing stronger safeguards to ensure that foods used in the federal school lunch program are produced within the United States.

Frozen strawberries imported from Mexico are believed to have caused an outbreak of hepatitis A among 187 Michigan students last month. U.S. law requires USDA commodities served in the school lunch program to be grown domestically.

It still is not known whether the fruit was contaminated in the field or during processing at a southern California plant, Mary Ann Keeffe, acting undersecretary of agriculture, told the House Economic and Educational Opportunities youth subcommittee on Thursday.

But Fred Shank, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, testified the strawberries were grown in highly unsanitary conditions.

Shank said ``some troubling problems″ were disclosed when the FDA inspected the Mexican fields March 31, less than a week after the hepatitis outbreak was discovered.

``These included open and unlined pit privies (toilets) immediately adjacent to the fields,″ he testified. ``There were too few facilities for the crews to practice proper sanitation practices. There were no hand-washing facilities.″

The Mexican government has denied responsibility for the outbreak. Nevertheless, Shank said, a meeting was being organized within the next week or so in Tijuana, Mexico, to resolve the sanitation problem.

Participants will include officials of the FDA, USDA, the Centers for Disease Control, the state of California and growers from Canada and the United States.

The Mexican strawberries slipped into the U.S. school lunch program despite USDA requirements that suppliers certify in writing that commodities were grown within the United States and random USDA audits of their origin.

``This incident has caused us to step back and say, in fact are we doing everything we possibly can to ensure the domestic origin of the product we are buying,″ acknowledged Ken Clayton, deputy administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. ``Our conclusion at this stage is that we can do more.″

Clayton said that in addition to the vendor certification and USDA audits, the marketing service has begun requiring additional information such as packing dates, lot numbers, country of origin and a variety of identifying marks.

``Basically, we’re laying out a road map so that we’re able to fully trace back the origin of the product,″ he explained, promising further random audits to ensure the information is correct.

Clayton also said the service is intensifying its vendor compliance program, emphasizing the USDA domestic-origin policy and the penalties for violating it.

USDA officials told the subcommittee the department is working with the Justice Department to determine if there was any criminal fraud in the case.

Providing false statements concerning the origin of a product is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison and significant fines. Civil penalties include debarment from federal contracting and the loss of license to sell perishable agricultural commodities.