U.S.D.A. Barring Use by Schools Of Suspect Beef
Washington--Responding to a U.S. Agriculture Department ban on ground beef supplied by two plants to the federal school-lunch program, school officials last week took steps to make sure that the suspect product did not reach schoolchildren.
The Agriculture Department (usda) halted distribution of the 6.4 million pounds of hamburger on Sept. 20, following allegations that it "may have come from substandard cattle and may have been processed under less than sanitary conditions," according to a statement issued by Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block.
On Sept. 21, the Secretary took the additional step of barring the two firms from selling meat to the government.
As of late last week, however, the usda had found no evidence of a health threat and had received no reports of illness linked with the ground beef. Spokesmen described Continued on Page X
U.S.D.A. Bans Use of Suspect Meat
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the measures as "precautionary."
The investigation has sparked Congressional interest as well. Last week, Representative Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry said that the subcommittee will hold hearings on conditions at the two plants, although he did not announce a date.
In at least one state, Illinois, officials stopped distributing the ground beef before being ordered to do so by the usda Donald G. Gill, state superintendent of public instruction, recommended that schools not use federally provided ground beef until the situation became clearer. Mr. Gill also sent a strongly worded telegram to Mr. Block, seeking confirmation that the meat did not pose a threat to the health of Illinois schoolchildren.
In Chicago, Ruth B. Love, superintendent of schools, also called a halt to the use of government hamburger. Gov. James R. Thompson Jr. announced in a news conference that he had ordered shipment of the suspect meat to Illinois halted.
The beef in question was supplied by Cattle King Packing Company of Denver and Nebraska Beef Packers Inc. of Gering, Neb. Both companies were the subject of an investigation by the Better Government Association (bga), a Chicago-based citizens' group, and NBC-tv's "First Camera," a new program similar in format to CBS-tv's "60 Minutes." (See Education Week, Sept. 21, 1983.) During the 1982-83 school year, Cattle King provided 14 percent of the ground beef used in the school-lunch program and Nebraska Beef supplied 7 percent, according to the investigative report.
Officials of the companies did not return telephone calls last week; in news reports, the owners were quoted as denying the charges.
The results of the investigation were made public on the Sept. 18 premiere of "First Camera." But according to usda officials, the department had started an investigation prior to issuing the ban. The officials said the department had been aware of possible violations by the plants prior to learning of the investigation, but declined to say how the alleged problems had come to their attention.
Samples of Beef
usda officials said they had notified school officials in states that had received the ground beef and had taken samples of beef from the two plants at 14 sites in 12 states.
School-lunch hamburger is purchased from meat packers by the Agricultural Marketing Service, a branch of the usda, and distributed through the Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the federal school-lunch program.
The 12 states were Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington. They were chosen because the inspection branch of usda knew that some of the beef from the packers in question had been sent to the states. As goverment scientists receive information on the whereabouts of the rest of the meat from other branches of the department, they will conduct further sampling.
usda officials said that they had "capabilities" that allowed them to track the ground beef but said that they would give access to the necessary information only to those directly involved in the program, not the general public.
Officials in some of the states that received the beef said the usda had told them how to identify precisely the meat from the two suppliers. Notified on Sept. 19 by the department, the states had halted use of the beef by the following day. In some cases, because it is still early in the school year, the product was still in state warehouses.
Evidence uncovered by the investigators suggests that the meat-packing firms--owned by members of the same family--used unsanitary practices and routinely processed meat that should have been condemned.
The usda estimates that there are about 6.4 million pounds of the ground beef currently somewhere in distribution channels between the packers and the schools.
"Routine samples" of the hambur-ger from Cattle King and Nebraska Beef, taken by the usda since October 1981, "indicate no health threat and no reports of illness associated with beef from the two plants," according to a statement issued by Secretary Block.
The investigation is being conducted by the office of the usda inspector general. In his Sept. 21 statement, Secretary Block said that he was "not in a position to discuss any of the details of the investigation at this time."
Site Visits and Interviews
Department sources, however, said the investigation would include both site visits and interviews with people involved with the plants.
Officials in some states that have not received any of the beef from the suspect packers said they had not asked schools to halt all use of the federally provided hamburger.
Some public-interest groups described the situation at Cattle King and Nebraska Beef as the latest evidence of problems in the federal meat-inspection program.
A survey conducted by a usda review board several years ago found wide disparities in inspection practices from region to region, according to an official with the Community Nutrition Institute (cni), a public-interest group. The disparities offer evidence of a lack of consistent national practices and management, according to the official.
He described a case of poultry contamination that was discovered when Georgia schoolchildren became ill after eating the chicken. An analysis revealed that the chicken was contaminated with styrene, a chemical used in the resurfacing of floors that is easily picked up by meat. Such contamination, which produces a markedly unpleasant odor, abates eventually, as the chemical breaks down into its components.
The standard procedure would be to condemn styrene-contaminated meat, according to cni But in this instance, usda inspection officials agreed to let the packer hold the poultry until the contamination abated, then sell it.