School Climate & Safety

House Panel Probes School Lunch Safety

By Christina A. Samuels — March 05, 2008 5 min read

The chairman of the House education committee on Tuesday reiterated his criticism of the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its meat-inspection system in the wake of the massive beef recall that has ensnared school districts nationwide.

“It is unacceptable that the USDA so completely failed to do its job. We cannot judge the USDA’s inspection process as successful or effective if it allows tainted meat to enter the school food supply,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said during the hearing.

The controversy over the massive nationwide beef recall spilled over into a previously scheduled congressional hearing involving the national organization that represents school nutrition directors.

The Alexandria, Va.-based School Nutrition Association holds a yearly Washington meeting where it meets with lawmakers and testifies before Congress on the state of the school lunch program.

But with Congress’s attention still focused on a 143 million-pound beef recall that involved school lunches, most of the conversation dealt with the safety of the food supply, rather than the nutritional standards and increased federal reimbursements that the nutrition association supports.

“A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to this hearing,” said Mary Hill, the president of the nutrition association and the director of child nutrition for the 31,000-student Jackson, Miss., school district. About 50 million pounds of the recalled beef is believed to have gone to schools; most of that has since been consumed, the USDA estimates.

‘Examine Every Step’

The controversy over the meat began when the Humane Society of the United States released hidden-camera video of cows being mistreated at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, Calif. The cows slaughtered there were “spent” dairy cows that could no longer produce milk.

Cows that cannot walk, called “downer” cows, are not to be slaughtered for food, according to regulations from the USDA. Inability to walk is a possible symptom of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease,” which can be passed to humans. Sick cows are also more at risk for passing on harmful e. coli or salmonella bacteria.

To get the sick or lame cows to stand, workers at the plant engaged in inhumane practices, the USDA said this month. The federal agency suspended its inspections at the plant Feb. 4, which forced a halt in meat production. At that time, schools were also asked not to serve meat from the plant, while the department launched an investigation.

“These abuses were happening right under the inspectors’ noses, but it took a private charity organization to uncover them,” Rep. Miller said.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the senior Republican on the education committee, noted that investigations are underway from the Agriculture Department’s inspector general, and the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency of Congress.

“I hope we take a comprehensive look at the structure of our child nutrition and food safety programs to examine every step in the safety, monitoring and notification process,” Mr. McKeon said.

Kate J. Houston, the deputy undersecretary of food, nutrition, and consumer services for the USDA, said that the department is still actively investigating the mistreatment of cows at the Hallmark/Westland plant. Almost 90 percent of the affected beef has been tracked, she said. The recall includes meat produced as far back as Feb. 1, 2006. The department said that it also used a “rapid alert” system to disseminate information to schools as soon as it had it.

Improving Alerts

During the hearing, the school nutrition directors said they had no complaints with the quality of food they receive from the USDA. About 20 percent of a school meal is made up of commodities from the federal government; the remaining 80 percent is made up of food purchased commercially.

“The commodities we receive from USDA are quite important to the programs we run,” Ms. Hill said. “The image of USDA ‘dumping’ commodities the schools do not want and can’t use is no longer valid.”

However, the directors said they were caught flat-footed by frequently changing information from the USDA about the recall.

Dora Rivas, the director of child nutrition for the 160,000-student Dallas district, said the first notice about affected beef involved a product that the district did not have in stock. Soon after that first alert, however, the recall expanded to include a product the district had received and shipped back out again to be processed into beef “crumbles” and “steak fingers,” she said.

The district is currently “traveling uncharted territory,” she said, as it deals with the recall, which has now affected about 2,500 cases of meat products at the district.

“It was unfortunate that the [USDA] press release went out before official notice went to schools,” Ms. Rivas said. Providing schools with all the information so that they would be able to answer parents’ questions would have led to a smoother process, she said.

Ms. Hill of the school nutrition group agreed, suggesting that the government needed to speed up its system of disseminating information about recalls.

“Communication from the [USDA’s] Food and Nutrition Service in Washington, to the USDA regional offices, to the 50 states, to the local school food service authority, and then to the local 100,000 schools takes too long, particularly when CNN can put out the recall immediately,” Ms. Hill said.

Also in question is how schools will be reimbursed for the beef they’ve had to destroy, and the costs they incurred in cataloguing and collecting the recalled food, Ms. Rivas said. She estimated Dallas’s reimbursable costs at about $114,000, plus another $2,000 in employee overtime costs, which she said the district would have to absorb.

Ms. Houston said the USDA plans to reimburse schools both for the food they have had to destroy, plus some associated costs for storage and collection.

During the hearing, the school nutrition association did have a chance to squeeze in information about the school lunch program. The organization reiterated its call for a uniform food nutrition standard that would apply to all states. Currently, states have different standards, and it is more expensive for food processors to create food to match the different restrictions.

The association also requested that Congress consider a larger federal reimbursement for school meals. The federal government currently pays about $2.47 per meal, but the estimated average cost of a school meal is $3.10, Ms. Hill said.

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