Minnesota to test irradiation education program in school districts

Jan 16, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – As the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) prepares to offer irradiated ground beef to schools for their lunch programs, Minnesota state officials are planning a USDA-financed pilot project in three school districts to assess attitudes and test educational materials about irradiated beef.

The aim of the project is "to get the latest science-based information to school districts so they could make the best decisions about their food safety programs," according to an advisory from the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning (MDCFL). The MDCFL received a $151,000 USDA grant for the project, department spokesman Doug Gray told CIDRAP News.

When the project is finished this summer, Minnesota will provide USDA with educational materials, a press kit, and other information that USDA can then offer to school districts across the country, state officials said.

Minnesota officials approached USDA with the idea for the pilot project after the 2002 farm bill opened the door to the use of irradiated ground beef in the National School Lunch Program, according to Mary Begalle, director of the MDCFL Food and Nutrition Service. A long-standing USDA policy had banned the purchase of irradiated beef for that and other commodity programs, but the farm bill now requires the department to consider any federally approved food safety technology when buying food for the commodity programs. USDA is currently taking public comments on the specifications it should use in buying irradiated ground beef.

The school districts involved in the project are Spring Lake Park, in the Twin Cities metro area; Sauk Rapids, near St. Cloud in central Minnesota; and Willmar, a rural district in central Minnesota. Gray said the MDCFL chose the three districts after talking with a number of districts that receive raw ground beef from the USDA.

Begalle told CIDRAP News the project will start with an assessment of knowledge and attitudes about food safety and irradiation in each school district. The survey will include administrators, food service workers, teachers, older students, and parents, she said.

In March and April, officials will use the survey results to create and present various educational materials and programs in the districts, Begalle said. The efforts could include in-service training for staff members, brochures for parents, presentations to parent-teacher organizations, or other approaches, she said.

The information presented "will be the best and latest science-based information on irradiation," said Gray.

"After that, in May, we'll do an evaluation phase," Begalle said. Officials will approach the same groups of people and seek to learn whether the program changed their perceptions, helped them understand irradiation better, and answer their questions, she continued. "Then we'll modify the materials, and put them out next year statewide to all the school districts."

In addition, Minnesota will give USDA the prototype educational materials, a press kit, and a local partnership plan describing how school districts can work with local health officials and state officials to provide information to the public, Begalle said.

Said Gray, "The idea is to provide information to USDA so that other schools around the country that are interested in looking at this option will have information to do so."

Barbara Hann, food service director for the Spring Lake Park school district, said she has seen no local opposition to the project so far, but it has not yet been publicized much. "At this point it doesn't mean we'll be using irradiated beef, it just means we're part of this educational program," she told CIDRAP News. She said the school board was very open to the idea, probably because the board has had favorable experiences with similar research projects in the past.

A number of other state agencies and professional organizations are working with the MDCFL on the pilot project, according to Pamela Van Zyl York, head of the Nutrition and Physical Activity Unit, Center for Health Promotion, Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). The groups include MDH, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Minnesota School Food Service Association, School Food Service Directors of Minnesota, University of Minnesota Extension Service, and the Minnesota Beef Council.

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