The U.S. Department of Agriculture received reports earlier this year that a San Diego firm was illegally purchasing foreign-grown strawberries for use in school lunches, but failed to take action in time to prevent the recent hepatitis outbreak, a department official told lawmakers Thursday.
Kenneth Clayton, deputy administrator of agricultural marketing services, said USDA officials had been informed that Andrew and Williamson Co., which processed and packed the strawberries that exposed more than 9,000 Los Angeles schoolchildren and adults to the hepatitis A virus, was buying foreign produce in violation of school lunch program requirements.
Department officials planned to investigate the reports, which surfaced in January and February, but had not done so by the time the contaminated strawberries reached school districts in California and five other states last month, Clayton told members of the House’s Early Childhood, Youth and Families subcommittee.
“I certainly would agree that in hindsight, which is 20-20, I wish we would have followed up more quickly,” he said, adding that a hold should have been placed on the frozen berries until officials could inspect them.
One reason the reports were not acted upon, he said, is that competing packing plants sometimes spread rumors about each other. But he said he did not know if that was the case in this instance. Several congressmen expressed concern the USDA had not acted on the reports. “When you hear rumors, it seems there should be some urgency,” said Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich. “Especially since this food is intended for our children.”
USDA officials said stepped-up investigation of such reports is one of several reforms the department is undertaking in response to the hepatitis A outbreak.
Over 150 students in Michigan were infected with hepatitis A after eating the contaminated strawberries in early March. Strawberries from the same lot were also shipped to Los Angeles and served to 9,006 students and adults in mid-March. When Los Angeles school officials learned of the Michigan outbreak, inoculation clinics were immediately set up and no known outbreaks of hepatitis resulted.
Before the hepatitis outbreak in Michigan, the USDA relied only on processors’ signatures to ensure their food was domestic. Occasionally, agency officials inspected packing plants on a random basis to ensure compliance. Now, the USDA will demand more information from the processors, including the packing date, lot number and country of origin of all foods for the school lunch program. Clayton likened this reform to “laying a road map” so the USDA can trace food to its origin.
Since the hepatitis A virus is thought to have originated in Mexico, the USDA and Food and Drug Administration are working with Mexican farmers to assist them in making their farms more sanitary, said Fred Shank, an FDA official.