At least three school districts had pulled beef from their menus as of last week because of concerns about mad cow disease.
The three districts—in Colorado and Washington state—took the action despite assurances by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the beef supply is safe. So far, one cow in Washington state was found to have the disease.
“I’m not going to feed my kids a hamburger,” said Ann Owsley, the owner of The Lunch Co., an independent contractor in Aspen, Colo., that provide lunches to the elementary school and the middle school in Aspen. “A very small risk is still a risk.”
Diana Sirko, the superintendent of the 1,500-student Aspen school district, said that beef was not taken off the menu for students at the district’s one high school. She said a different food contractor that serves the high school determined it was safe to still serve meat.
Meanwhile, the 3,300-student Toppenish district in Washington state made a decision over the holiday break to remove beef from its menus for the month of January.
District Superintendent Steve Myers said in a statement to the press, however, that school officials did not have all the facts when they made that decision. Now that they do, he said, the district is confident that the beef poses no health risks to students, and it will be put back on the menu in February.
Barry Sackin, a spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Food Service Association, said districts that are using USDA commodity beef should have no concerns because specifications for that beef do not allow slaughter practices that would put it at risk.
Still, he said, the 85,700- student Jefferson County, Colo., district had apparently decided to remove certain beef items from its menus until it receives verification from food vendors that none of their beef came from a questionable herd.
Other districts are relying on the assurances from the USDA in the wake of recent headlines about the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States.
According to the USDA, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease, is a degenerative neurological disease. It is part of a family of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.
Risk ‘Extremely Low’
Included in that family— along with diseases in sheep, goats, and deer—is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD, which affects humans. Classic CJD can affect anyone, but is not connected to the consumption of beef. Variant CJD, or vCJD, is thought, however, to be caused by eating certain neural tissue, such as the spinal cord or brain of BSE-infected cattle. The USDA says that those parts of so-called “downer cattle,” or any meat from cows that are too sick to walk, have never been sold to schools. On Dec. 30, that ban was extended to all retail outlets.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 143 of the 153 known cases of vCJD occurred in the United Kingdom, where an epidemic of mad cow disease peaked in 1993. The CDC says that vCJD is “invariably fatal” to people who get it.
Based on the British experience with the disease, the CDC said the disease that is passed on to humans predominantly affects people under the age of 30. Still, the CDC states, the risk to people in the United States from BSE is “extremely low.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Mad-Cow Scare Spurs School Menu Changes