Kids’ lunches: Bad meat sent to schools
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
A food safety expert says hundreds of thousands of pounds of ground beef that were sent to schools this summer under the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s National School Lunch Program should have been recalled after other beef processed by the same provider was found to be contaminated with salmonella. And a USA TODAY report says the failure to recall that product “raises questions about whether the government took adequate steps to ensure that meat it bought for schoolchildren…was safe.”
James Marsden, professor of meat science at Kansas State University and associate director of the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center, said he would have recommended the recall of all the school lunch meat processed by Beef Packers at its Fresno plant between June 5 and June 23. The USDA urged Beef Packers (owned by agribusiness giant Cargill) to recall more than 825,000 pounds of ground beef that was processed for retailers during that period.
The finding comes as Consumer Reports reported that it found pathogens in a majority of the chicken its researchers bought at grocery stores nationwide.
There were four orders processed for the school lunch program during the period in which contaminated beef was found to have been processed. As a matter of routine, each order processed for the lunch program is tested, and one of the four orders processed during that period tested positive for salmonella Newport and was rejected. The other three batches were shipped before the recall was announced in August.
Marsden, who is senior science adviser for the North American Meat Processors Association, told USA TODAY the tests involved are inconsistent and often wrong. He said Beef Packers’ decision not to recall the school lunch meat after it was shipped was “just poor decision-making.”
Beef Packers did not process any commercial orders on the days school lunch meat was processed. Beef found to be contaminated was produced using the same equipment the day before each of the school meat batches was processed, but Marsden said it’s “very unlikely” salmonella would have survived the nightly cleaning of the assembly lines. However, he said, “Since one of the four lots [of school lunch beef] tested positive, my recommendation would have been to include all four lots in the recall.”
Marsden also told USA TODAY, “94% of the time, I won’t find it [salmonella] even though it’s there,” since salmonella is not usually distributed evenly in any lot of beef.
Beef Packers is the seventh-largest processor of beef products for the school lunch program since 2001, but it has not bid on any more school lunch contracts since this summer’s recalls. USA TODAY found the company was suspended from the school lunch program twice in 2007 and again in 2008 because of continuing problems with salmonella.