The Center for Science in the Public Interest wants schools to stop serving beef.
Better safe than sorry, what with mad cow disease turning up in the United States last month, the group reasoned in a letter it plans to send next week to the nation’s largest school districts. But does a single known U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, as the disease is formally known, make beef unfit for school cafeteria menus? Wouldn’t a beef ban be a bit of an overreaction?
No, the Washington-based consumer group argues, and it isn’t basing its call for banning beef on BSE alone. Many watchdog organizations have long argued that meat processing is a dirty business with an unsafe product—and that government safeguards fall far short of protecting consumers.
“The alarming reality is that, because of lax regulations, poor enforcement, and very limited testing, the extent to which mad cow disease has entered the human food supply is unknown,” the center’s nutrition projects coordinator, Jennifer L. Keller, writes in the letter.
Industry and government experts disagree. They say the beef supplied to schools through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program undergoes far greater scrutiny than beef destined for grocery stores and restaurants.
The food-safety system is “even more redundant for our schoolchildren than for the commercial market, and rightly so,” said Alden M. Booren, a professor in Michigan State University’s department of food science and human nutrition and a former employee of one of the major U.S. meat-packing companies. “I’m absolutely confident that everything that goes into the school lunch program has the positive reinforcement of the USDA.”
Undersecretary of Agriculture Eric M. Bost, who is in charge of the USDA’s food, nutrition, and consumer-services division, is so sure of the safety of the beef destined for schools that he sent a letter out last week urging state agencies and officials to reassure school administrators and food-service managers.
“USDA has long-standing and stringent specifications for meat, and it continuously monitors production to ensure a product that is both safe and of high quality,” Mr. Bost wrote.
What does that mean?
The USDA begins its beef-safety process for the school lunch program at the door of the slaughterhouse, with a federally trained inspector at least glancing at every live animal before it moves on to the killing floor.
“But that glance turns into something much longer if there appears to be something wrong with the animal,” Michigan State University’s Mr. Booren said.
The cow at issue in the Washington state BSE case that set off the current wave of concern in December was what the industry refers to as a “downer cow,” because it couldn’t walk. Animals that can’t stand on their own raise an immediate red flag for inspectors, government and industry experts say, and are supposed to be looked at more closely before slaughter than other cows.
Downer cows were already excluded from the beef supply sold to the National School Lunch Program, along with any cattle not born and raised in this country.
Now USDA regulations announced this month prohibit the use of downer cows in the human food supply altogether.
After the sight inspections, the cattle are killed and slaughtered.
For meat destined for commercial markets, that has meant in recent years that cows were herded through a system of chutes and pulleys and, one by one, struck dead with an air-injected bolt blow into their skulls directly between the eyes.
Air-injection stunning was not allowed to be used on animals slaughtered for USDA’s school lunch program, however. Instead, the animals are merely stunned with a steel bolt fired with just enough force to knock them unconscious.
And now that mad cow disease has been found in this country, the Agriculture Department has also deemed the air-injection technique too dangerous for the general meat supply, because of the possibility that dislodged BSE-infected brain tissue might get mixed up with the meat from the carcass during slaughter.
When ground beef is being purchased by the USDA for school lunches, the contractors must manually carve the meat from the bone, and a USDA inspector looks over the beef for banned parts such as connective tissue, nerve tissue, major lymph glands, bone, and spinal cord.
Ground beef destined for grocery stores and restaurants, however, may contain more of the animal because of an industry tool called “advanced meat recovery,” a machine that uses high pressure to strip tissue from the bone of beef carcasses.
Under federal guidelines, the leftovers rubbed from the bones with AMR can be labeled as “meat,” but those guidelines prohibit the inclusion of spinal cord in the general meat supply. Still, critics say the process virtually ensures that spinal tissue ends up in ground beef and processed beef products.
Now, a new rule announced by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman cleans up the general beef supply a little more by extending the prohibition to include dorsal root ganglia— clusters of nerve cells connected to the spinal cord along the vertebral column—and the vertebral columns and skulls of cattle age 30 months or older.
Testing for Contaminants
At the point when meat leaves the bone, USDA graders take at least four samples from each production lot of fresh, chilled beef destined for schools to test for dangerous pathogens such as E. coli 0157, generic E. coli, coliforms, and salmonella, according to USDA specifications. Those rules also require meat suppliers for the school meal programs to use at least two proven procedures for eliminating pathogens, one being steam pasteurization, which is typically done by either rinsing the animal carcass in an organic acid or water heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
The contractors are also responsible for having a system in place that allows the ground beef to be easily traced to its source.
Agriculture Department officials say they rely on those systems to ensure the quality and safety of the meat. If a sample comes back from E. coli testing with questionable results, for instance, producers and inspectors need to be able to find all the meat from the production lot that produced the sample.
A positive test for a deadly pathogen can get a meat-packing company ejected from the federal commodity programs, but “it’s unusual for producers to be eliminated,” said Barry L. Carpenter, the deputy administrator of the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service livestock and seed program.
The meat then must be frozen to zero degrees Fahrenheit within 72 hours after the animal is killed, Mr. Carpenter said, and it can’t be shipped to schools until the results for the microbial testing come back.
Some food-safety experts suggest taking the anti-bacterial process a step further with irradiation, the bombarding of meat with gamma rays, X-rays, or electrons to kill disease- causing microbes. The USDA lifted its ban on irradiated ground beef in the school lunch program last year, but the procedure remains controversial. (“Irradiation Choice for Lunches Now a District Matter,” June 11, 2003.)
Proper Food Handling
Despite all those safeguards, the rules for handling and cooking beef in school cafeterias are still critical, experts warn.
“Schools shouldn’t be worried about beef—no one should be worried about beef,” said Rick McCarty, a spokesman for the Cattleman’s Beef Association in Denver.
Nonetheless, he added, “meat still has to be stored properly, handled properly, and cooked properly. That’s probably more important than anything else.”
That means washing hands and food-preparation surfaces frequently, storing and preparing raw meat separately from other foods, and using a meat thermometer to ensure that ground beef is cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Still, some critics say that the beef-production process poses so many health risks that banning its product from schools is the best way to protect the nation’s students.
“There’s no better time than now to replace beef with soy, textured vegetable protein, beans, veggie burgers, and other meatless items in school menu items,” Ms. Keller of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said.
“Plant-based entrees are not only safer and much less likely to carry foodborne pathogens,” she said, “but they’re lower in fat, calories, free of cholesterol, and much higher in fiber, essential vitamins and minerals, and rich in cancer-fighting phytochemicals.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Nation’s Beef-Production Process Has Special Rules for School Food