It is the unfortunate reality that children are disproportionately affected by foodborne illness. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly half of the reported foodborne illnesses occur in children, with the majority of these cases occurring in children under 15 years of age. There are several reasons why children are at a higher risk for infection. Specifically, children have underdeveloped immune systems lacking the capacity to fight off severe infections, they have smaller bodies thereby reducing the amount of foodborne pathogens necessary to sicken them, and they have little to no control over what they eat.

To address this public health concern, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has already implemented several initiatives to promote food safety, particularly in schools and child care settings. However, Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, made an important announcement last week about a new effort to make food safer for kids.

According to a press release issued by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of USDA on April 14, 2011, Kansas State University will now be home to the Center of Excellence for Food Safety Research in Child Nutrition Programs, a research facility devoted solely to improving food safety for children.

Secretary Vilsack awarded the university a 2 year, $1.6 million grant in order to perform research on produce safety, examine existing school food safety programs, and develop education and training opportunities for school nutrition and child care employees. “Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our nation’s children and we must do everything we can to ensure that kids are being served safe, high quality meals,” said Vilsack.

FNS oversees the administration of 15 nutrition assistance programs, including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service, After School Snack Programs and the Child and Adult Care Feeding Programs. As the press release points out, “The National School Lunch Program is provided in over 101,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions, serving over 31 million children each day.”   

The research performed at the Center will hopefully have a significant impact on the safety of child school nutrition programs across the U.S. and will reduce the number of foodborne illnesses that affect our most vulnerable population each year.