Student Well-Being

USDA Standard Could Make School Hamburgers Rare

By Jessica Portner — September 13, 2000 4 min read
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Hamburgers and Sloppy Joes may be scarce in some school cafeterias this year because of the ripple effect of a new Department of Agriculture standard for the federal school lunch program.

At least two states have decided to forgo USDA beef altogether because of higher costs related to the tightening of the agency’s beef-safety standards. And some districts are taking beef off their menus because USDA beef shipments won’t arrive in time for them to plan their meals for the year— something most districts do well before students return to school in the fall.

In June, the USDA said it would more frequently test ground-beef products for its subsidized school meals program for salmonella bacteria and reject any beef that tested positive for the bacteria. The school meals program buys and delivers meats, fruits, and other commodities to schools year round. It served 26 million children last school year.

Salmonella, a pathogen, is one of the leading causes of food poisoning in humans.Because a majority of beef-producers were unable to meet the government’s higher standard, the USDA has only purchased two-thirds of the amount—or 23 million pounds of beef—that it had bought at this time last year. The more limited supply has driven beef prices up by 50 cents a pound since last year, and many school leaders are experiencing sticker shock.

“The story for schools is that districts don’t know when they are getting products—and it’s going to be pricier,” said Barry Sackin, the director of government affairs for the American School Food Service Association in Alexandria, Va.

And, when it comes to delivering millions of pounds of food to schools, he added, timing is critical. “If the department buys everything they project to buy, but does so later than sooner, then schools might get a large volume at the end of the year and pay storage costs to hold beef over the summer,” Mr. Sackin said.

Chicken Run

Because of the uncertainty, two states—Wisconsin and Illinois—have decided to cancel their USDA beef orders for the entire school year. But many Wisconsin school districts, unwilling to do without their burgers, have been scouting for better beef deals on the commercial market.

“Hamburgers are very popular. It’s a favorite food,” said Marilyn Hunt, the director of food services for the 8,000-student LaCrosse, Wis., district. Ms. Hunt said she was able to find ground beef that won’t break her food budget. If she can get better deals on other foods, she added, financially, “it’ll be a wash.”

But some other districts that opted to cancel their beef orders completely and are searching for meat alternatives on the open market are already getting hit with bigger grocery bills.

“My budget is taking a really big beating,” said Susan Gilroy, the food-services director for the 140,000-student San Diego Unified School District.

The San Diego schools plan to serve chicken patties, hot dogs, and bean-and-cheese burritos instead of hamburgers this year. Ms. Gilroy estimates it will cost the district an additional $500,000 this fall to order the alternative entrees from independent suppliers. “If this goes on for a whole year, we are going to have some problems,” Ms. Gilroy said, adding that she was considering asking the district to raise the price of a lunch from $1 to $1.25 next semester. Ms. Gilroy said she had a small supply of frozen ground beef left over from last school year that would only last three or four weeks. Beef tacos, a student favorite, will have to be rationed, she said.

Industry’s Beef

The beef industry recently criticized the USDA for imposing what it deems an unrealistic standard, saying a small amount of salmonella is common in beef and that pathogens are removed when raw meat is cooked.

The department’s tighter regulations on beef used in the school lunch program followed the government’s attempt to close a Dallas-based beef processor after it failed a batch of salmonella tests. In June, a judge barred the federal government from shutting down the company plant.

Industry officials have charged that the new regulations were a punishment for challenging the department in court. Despite reports that the USDA was reconsidering the standards last month because of pressure from beef processors, USDA officials said last week that they are not backpedaling on the new rules.

“We want foods for schools to be as safe as possible,” said Billy Cox, the director of pubic affairs for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. He said the new standards bring the school meals in line with standards for major supermarket chains and fast-food restaurants. Mr. Cox said he expects that the industry, given a little time, will be able to meet the new expectations.

But Jeremy Russell, a spokesman for the Washington-based National Meat Association, said the standards are unrealistic. “They are far beyond what’s possible,"he said.

Mr. Sackin of the ASFSA said last week that the Agriculture Department was considering whether to allow the pathogen tests to be conducted before the beef is ground, which would give the vendor the opportunity to use the product for another purpose if it failed the test.

Despite the hassles of finding food alternatives and rewriting menus, many educators say the new beef standards are an important precaution.

“I have been here 23 years, and I have seen no salmonella outbreaks. However, we have a responsibility to assure we never see it,” said Ms. Hunt, whose Wisconsin district served 30,000 lunches to students last week.

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