School nutrition directors said last week they struggled to keep up to date with the frequently changing information released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as it handled the nation’s largest beef recall.
At a hearing before federal lawmakers on March 4, they asked that the lines of communication between the federal government and school nutrition directors be streamlined so that districts receive information at the same time it is released to the general public.
The chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee also reiterated his criticism of the Agriculture Department over its meat-inspection system.
“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,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.
The committee hearing was convened to coincide with the Alexandria, Va.-based School Nutrition Association’s annual Washington meeting, but the lawmakers primarily focused on last month’s recall of beef produced by the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, Calif. (“Meat Recall Raises Food-Safety Questions,” Feb. 27, 2008.)
Dora Rivas, the director of child nutrition for the 160,000-student Dallas school district, said the first notice she received about affected beef involved a product that the district did not have in stock. The USDA, which oversees the school lunch and breakfast program, had put a hold on the meat while it investigated claims from the Humane Society of the United States that cows had been mistreated at a packing plant. Soon after that first alert, Ms. Rivas told members of the committee, the recall expanded to include a product the district had received and shipped out to be processed into beef “crumbles” and “steak fingers.”
The district is “traveling uncharted territory” as it deals with the recall, which has affected about 2,500 cases of product in the district, she said.
“It was unfortunate that the [USDA] press release went out before official notice went to schools,” Ms. Rivas said. Informing schools of all the information early so they would be able to answer parents’ questions would have led to a smoother process, she said.
Mary Hill, the president of the association and the director of child nutrition for the 31,000-student Jackson, Miss., district, concurred.
“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,” she said.
Also in question last week was how schools will be reimbursed for the beef they’ve destroyed, and for the costs they have 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, which she said the district would have to absorb.
Kate J. Houston, the deputy undersecretary of food, nutrition, and consumer services for the USDA, said at the hearing that the agency plans to reimburse schools both for the destroyed food and for some associated costs for storage and collection. About 50 million pounds of the recalled beef are believed to have gone to schools; most of that has since been consumed, the USDA believes.
The Agriculture Department used a “rapid alert” system to disseminate information to schools as soon as it had it, Ms. Houston said. The department also worked with the SNA and other education organizations, including the National School Boards Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The USDA is examining its communications procedures, she said.
The controversy began when the Humane Society released hidden-camera video of cows being mistreated at Hallmark/Westland. The cows slaughtered there were “spent” dairy cows that could no longer produce milk and were not to be used for food, according to USDA regulations.
“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 under way by 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,” Rep. McKeon said.
School nutrition directors said they had no complaints about the quality of food they receive from the USDA. About 20 percent of a typical school meal comes from federal commodities.
The association also repeated its call for a uniform food-nutrition standard. Now, states have different standards, and it is more expensive for food processors to create food to match the different restrictions.
The nutrition directors also requested that Congress consider a larger reimbursement for school meals. The federal government pays about $2.47 per meal, but the estimated average cost of a school meal is $3.10, Ms. Hill said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Nutrition Directors Fault USDA’s Notice on Recall of Meat