For years, school nutrition directors have tried carefully to improve the image of the school lunch.
Now, some worry the nation’s largest beef recall, prompted by a video of cows being mistreated at a California meat-processing plant, threatens to undo the work they’ve done promoting such lunchroom innovations as ethnic fare and well-stocked salad bars.
About 37 million of the 143 million pounds of meat recalled nationwide on Feb. 17 is believed to have gone to school districts, in the form of hamburger patties, meatballs, taco filling, and other processed-food products.
“The ‘mystery meat’—we’re right back to that kind of image again,” said Katie Wilson, the food-service director for the 3,000-student Onalaska, Wis., school district and the president-elect of the School Nutrition Association in Alexandria, Va.
Ms. Wilson’s district had not purchased any of the recalled meat, but the images of cows being shocked with electric prods and shoved with forklifts are so disturbing that they’ve raised issues all food-service directors are having to address, she said.
“It draws everyone’s attention away from all the good things,” she said.
The 18,500-student Arlington, Va., district sent a letter home to parents letting them know that six cases of 96 hamburger patties each had been isolated and would be destroyed.
“Parents are wondering; people are wondering everywhere,” said Amy Maclosky, the district’s director of food services. The letter was sent to families “in an effort to be really honest,” she added. “People need to understand that our food is safe.”
Also still in question this week was exactly how districts will be reimbursed for the meat from the California plant that they’ve had to take from shelves and destroy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the national school breakfast and lunch programs, said it plans to work directly with states to pay back schools for meat they’ve had to dispose of.
Dennis H. Barrett, the director of food services for the 694,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, estimated the district has between 150,000 and 175,000 pounds of the recalled meat in frozen storage. The amount represents a small percentage of food for the district, which serves about 600,000 breakfasts and lunches to students each day.
“We really have not gotten any backlash from our students,” said Mr. Barrett, who said the hamburger-based entrees that would have been made with the beef were simply replaced with other menu items. “Only about 25 to 30 percent of our entrees have ground beef,” he said.
The controversy over the meat began when the Humane Society of the United States released hidden-camera video of cows being mistreated at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, Calif. The cows processed there were “spent” dairy cows who 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.
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.
On Feb. 17, Hallmark/Westland announced a voluntary recall of beef that was produced at the plant as far back as Feb. 1, 2006. Much of the beef likely has already been consumed, the Agriculture Department has said.
There was virtually no health risk from the beef produced by the plant, which was distributed through the National School Lunch Program and other federal food programs, federal officials said.
The procedures under investigation at the plant were clearly “cruel and against federal law,” Keith Williams, the chief spokesman for the department, said in an interview this week. But the department considers the possibility of illness being caused by the beef to be “remote,” he added.
The USDA also said in a Feb. 17 news release that it has not increased inspections at other food-handling plants, believing the Hallmark/Westland case to be an “isolated incident of egregious violations.”
However, members of Congress are calling for a wider investigation into the safety of the food supply.
U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., the chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, has scheduled hearings in March on the topic of food safety and animal-handling practices. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency of Congress, has also agreed to look into practices at the Hallmark/Westland plant.
Congress needs to ensure that the school nutrition program does not become the “dumping ground for bad meat,” Ms. DeLauro said in a telephone press conference on Feb. 19.
“It’s alarming that the problem was not discovered by the USDA itself,” she said.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said during the same telephone press conference that the USDA “publicizes these absolute blanket statements of safety, while maximizing in every way they can the number of cows entering the U.S. food chain.”
Rep. Miller said the school lunch program was serving as a “sponge” to keep excess agricultural products off the market.
School food-service directors say, however, that they have little problem with the food they purchase for the school lunch programs. The Agriculture Department provides food that equals, or is better than, the quality of food available at grocery stores, they say. Meat purchased for the school lunch program, in fact, is subject to special rules for killing and processing cattle. (“Nation’s Beef-Production Process Has Special Rules for School Food,” Jan. 21, 2004.)
“If they said [the food was of lower quality], they haven’t been in schools lately,” said Janey Thornton, a former president of the School Nutrition Association and the child-nutrition director for the 14,000-student Hardin County school district in Kentucky.
Food that comes from the federal government has more safety checks and balances than food from other sources, she noted. In her former leadership position in the food-service directors’ group, Ms. Thornton said she visited food-processing plants and was impressed with the level of safeguards.
Like USDA officials, she considers the events that occurred at the Hallmark/Westland plant to be inhumane, but isolated.
“I have 160 employees, and I do lots of training. Does that mean I’m every place at every minute?” she said. “Shame on those people who did that, but it’s just a fluke.”
Ms. Wilson, the food-service director for the Onalaska, Wis., district, also praised the food provided by the USDA.
“I’m shocked that legislators would say something like that,” she said. “The quality of product is rather high.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2008 edition of Education Week