Tainted Meats Caused No Harm to Students, Officials Say
While concerns over beef contaminated with E. coli and chicken tainted with dioxin have triggered the largest beef recall in history and prompted schools to throw away tons of chicken patties, federal officials say no students have become ill from eating the foods.
Hudson Foods Inc. recalled more than 25 million pounds of beef last month after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that the company's frozen hamburger patties, which were sent to stores and fast-food restaurants across the country, might be infected with E. coli bacteria.
In July, several people in Colorado who ate the hamburger meat became sick and showed symptoms of exposure to E. coli, a potentially fatal bacterium that can cause dehydration and nausea.
During the recall, Hudson's biggest client, the Burger King restaurant chain, announced that it would no longer purchase hamburger patties from the Rogers, Ark., meat and poultry company.
Burger King has stores on school campuses, but David Nixon, a spokesman for the Miami-based fast-food giant, said that there have been no reports of any customers becoming sick from eating any of the spoiled meat.
Susan Acker, a spokeswoman for the USDA, added that "absolutely no" Hudson Foods beef products have been provided to the federal school lunch program, which serves more than 26 million schoolchildren daily during the school year.
Tons of dioxin-tainted chicken did make their way into school cafeteria freezers, however.
The USDA, which supplied the frozen chicken patties and nuggets to districts in 33 states last winter through the school lunch program, decided to pull the product last month after discovering a higher than acceptable amount of the highly toxic chemical compound in the chicken during routine testing.
Federal investigators traced the contamination to a Mississippi company that had mixed clay containing dioxin with chicken feed to prevent clumping, the USDA said. Dioxin can cause cancer if ingested over a long period of time, but a single short exposure to dioxin doesn't pose a serious health threat, Ms. Acker said.
"The amount was so low, but we didn't even want to have the smallest possibility of problems, so we said destroy it," Ms. Acker said. The USDA sent letters to the 33 states' education departments last month, advising schools to throw out all remaining inventories from the contaminated shipment.
Some school leaders said this latest report of tainted food has made them feel uneasy about the safety of the school food supply. More than 200 children contracted hepatitis A after eating strawberries in their school lunches last spring. ("Hepatitis Outbreak Spurs Inoculations In 5 States," April 16, 1997.)
"It concerns us if we can't trust the foods that are examined by the government," said June Million, the spokeswoman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "Maybe now, everybody's going to have to start bringing their own lunch to school," she said.