Have safety standards for school meals been compromised by contracting out? Julie Henry reports
FRESH fears over school meal safety have been raised following the news that condemned poultry was supplied to school canteens.
Five meat traders were jailed just before Christmas for a racket involving 1,300 tons of chicken and turkey.
The unfit meat should have been used in pet food but was instead hosed down, washed in salt and sold to wholesalers, supermarkets, butchers, market traders, restaurants and take-aways over a three-year period.
The meat found its way into schools in South and West Yorkshire, the East Riding, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
People eating the condemned poultry ran the risk of food poisoning but the longer-term effects are "incalculable". And investigators say the racket could be widespread.
Lewis Coates, the Rotherham environmental health officer who led the investigation, said it was impossible to say exactly how many schools received the meat because the traders developed a sophisticated nationwide network, using unmarked lorries, false names and bogus paperwork.
Routine checks by environmental health officers, who are responsible for food safety standards in schools, would not have distinguished the condemned meat from legitimate poultry.
Mr Coates said: "These birds died of unknown diseases. Workers were slicing off tumours and cancerous parts. We also don't know what kind of chemicals and hormones were involved or the longer-term effects these may have." But he added that children were among the most vulnerable.
Deregulation and the contracting out of meal services since the Eighties and the delegation of school meal budgets to heads has led to fears that food safety and nutrition standards cold be compromised.
The poultry case raises new fears, following the BSE crisis when local authorities banned beef from school menus.
Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, said: "Once meat in school dinners is covered in pastry or breadcrumbs, it could be anything. There needs to be more inspections. The education and health departments need to work together to seriously look at ways of checking out this food."
But Beverley Baker, chairman of the Local Authority Caterers Association, said rules for school caterers were among the most stringent. "Schools cannot just get their hamburgers from the local corner shop," she said.
This week, the Rotherham investigators presented evidence to the Food Standards Agency of other similar frauds operating around the country. An agency spokesman said it was considering "as a matter of urgency" the legal loophole which means, unlike beef, lamb and pork, condemned poultry is not stained with indelible dye.
FOOD SAFETY CHECKS
Local education authority environmental health officers are responsible for checking hygiene and food safety standards in schools.
They operate a "risk rating" of A to F which dictates the frequency of inspections, from every six months to five years. Most schools have a C rating and are inspected every 18 months.
School meal contracts are also inspected by environmental health teams. As well as checking food preparation, inspectors look at documentation relating to where the food has come from but would not necessarily detect bogus paperwork.
Contractors have a duty to use "reputable" suppliers and many have in-house checks.
From April, school meals will have to comply with government-set nutrition standards.