Use of Suspect Beef in Schools Is Alleged
An investigation by the Better Government Association--a Chicago-based citizens' group--and NBC-tv's "First Camera" has uncovered what the investigators allege is evidence that one of the major suppliers of frozen hamburger to the federal school-lunch program may be providing "diseased or contaminated" meat.
In a report presented on the Sept. 18 premiere of the news-feature program, the two groups charge that the Cattle King Packing Company, a Denver packing plant that in 1982-83 supplied 14 percent of the beef to the U.S. Agriculture Department (usda) for shipping to schools, has a long history of poor--and potentially dangerous--sanitation and inspection practices. The practices could allow contaminated meat or meat from diseased animals to be mixed in with untainted meat, the two groups charged in the 16-minute segment of the program.
The ground beef in question is purchased by the Agricultural Marketing Service, a division of the usda; distribution of the meat is handled by the Food and Nutrition Service, the usda division that administers the school-lunch program.
In the 1982-83 school year, the marketing division purchased 116 million pounds of bulk ground beef at a cost of about $127 million. About 95 percent of that was then distributed by the nutrition service to schools.
Citing the most recent statistics available, the investigators point out that the alleged hazards may affect even more schools Continued on Page 14
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this year; so far, the company has supplied the marketing service with 24 percent of the beef purchased for the lunch program. A Better Government Association (bga) investigator noted that the plant was closed for renovations this summer. Reports and recent visits, she said, suggest that sanitation may have improved, but the alleged practice of mixing good meat and bad continues.
According to the investigators, the plant owners were unwilling to discuss the charges with them. usda officials said they were not aware of violations at the plant. They said they relied on in-plant inspectors to guarantee wholesomeness.
Waste and Corruption
The Chicago-based bga is a nonprofit investigative group, founded in 1923, whose mission is the elimination of waste, corruption, and inefficiency in government. It has conducted numerous investigations, many carried out jointly with news media.
The goal of this investigation is to spur increased vigilance on the part of usda, whose stamp of approval indicates that the meat is safe, according to bga officials.
The allegations are based on evidence compiled during a six-month investigation. The investigators document their charges with the daily sanitation reports filed by the usda inspectors who work in the plant and with interviews with the inspectors and current and past employees.
A key piece of evidence in the case against Cattle King is a report filed by inspectors from the Canadian Agriculture Department. Canadian inspectors visit and rate a sample--not representative or inclusive--of plants that export meat to Canada. When they visited Cattle King, they found contaminated meat and unacceptable sanitary conditions. The plant was barred from exporting meat to Canada in April of this year.
The Canadian report states that maintenance and upgrading of programs were "not adequate" and cites cases in which contaminated meat or waste products may have come in contact with other meat. Overall, the inspectors found "lack of satisfactory inspectional control over plant structure, meat products, and plant operations. ..."
An internal inspection report filed in April, shortly before the Canadian review team arrived, suggests that the company was aware of the problems. The report lists five areas that needed to be cleaned, outlines the action necessary, and finishes by saying: "The above listed areas should be cleaned by this weekend, keeping in mind the Canadian Export Review scheduled for April 25, 1983."
The Canadian inspectors' findings reflect conditions reported earlier by usda inspectors who, the bga charges, have in some cases been warned against taking action. Many of the daily sanitation reports collected by the bga, which represent but do not include all reports over a two-year period, repeatedly note the same problems--uncovered drains and meat and fat buildup on equipment, for example. These apparently went uncorrected for several weeks.
The plant is owned by a member of a family that owns several other packing plants in Nebraska. In 1981, the owner of Cattle King was indicted--along with a relative--for violating the U.S. Meat Inspection Act and conspiring to violate it. After plea-bargaining, the defendents were put on four years' probation and fined $1,000.
Subsequently, their meat-inspection privileges were lifted for one month. But the penalty was not imposed until after the buying year for the school-lunch program--which runs roughly from August to March--was over, according to the investigation.
However, the usda ruled that the owner's previous violations of meat-inspection laws did not constitute grounds for barring him from selling meat to federal programs--the school-lunch program among them.
The records compiled by the bga, however, suggest that sanitation problems have occurred at the Denver plant as well. Noted one inspector in a December 1982 report: "The above deficiencies are considered to constitute a severe sanitation hazard; meat scraps at such am-bient temperature provide an excellent source of contamination which may be carried to [edible products] and present an open invitation for rodent infestation."
Another inspector noted repeatedly over a three-week period in 1981 that adequate soap and towels were not available near work stations, making it impossible for workers to wash their hands. One inspector noted "sightings" of rodents on several occasions in the spring of 1983.
"Beams, rails, chain track in carcass wash area [has] scaling paint and [is] rusty (previous reports)," writes one inspector in April 1983, referring to the other times the same problems had been noted.
Interviews with current and former employees--many of whom were willing to be interviewed only off the record--support the other evidence, the investigators charge. Those interviewed allege, for example, that cattle with eye cancer--stock that under inspection rules should be condemned--are routinely passed at the plant. They charge that damaged or diseased meat may be camouflaged from an inspector or passed when the inspector's back is turned. The bga says Cattle King is well-known among Denver meat packers for its poor sanitation practices.
The bga says that several Congressional committees have shown interest in holding hearings on the issue.