Recall of Beef Hits School Lunches Hard

The biggest meat recall in U.S. history has raised questions about the safety of meat used in programs administered by the Department of Agriculture — notably, school lunch programs.

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Members of Congress also spent time yesterday looking at how healthy your food is. They took aim at the department of agriculture's handling of the nation's largest beef recall in a hearing on Capitol Hill. School food directors were present. Last month, they pulled more than 50 million pounds of beef from school freezers around the country.

As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, school lunch systems got lost in the recall's confusion.

ALLISON AUBREY: When Dora Rivas, the director of Food Services at the Dallas Independent school district, first heard about tainted meat from a California slaughter house, she didn't know that she'd eventually have to toss out more than 100,000 pounds of steak fingers and beef crumbles.

Ms. DORA RIVAS (Director, Food Services, Dallas): As soon as we heard what codes were on our inventory, we immediately started pulling the product and separating it.

AUBREY: Rivas says her code system worked well once she knew exactly what meat was being recalled. What slowed the process down is that the USDA didn't know exactly where the tainted beef from the Hallmark Westland Beef Company had ended up after it was distributed through the school lunch commodities program.

Ms. RIVAS: In some cases, it went as ground beef. In some cases, it was processed into other forms.

AUBREY: Such as the steak fingers and meat crumbles that the Dallas schools ordered. All this reprocessing made it harder to trace back. Rivas says the recall may have gone more smoothly if the USDA had communicated directly with schools.

Information about the meat recall was first communicated on a USDA Web site on February 17th. Rivas starting hearing from the media and parents, but it wasn't until the 20th, three days later, she got official word and instructions from the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Ms. RIVAS: What would be more helpful to us is to get this information as soon as possible so that we're able to respond immediately to the recall.

AUBREY: During the congressional hearing, Representative George Miller, chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, called into question the United States Department of Agriculture's inspection system, pointing out that it took a Humane Society investigation to uncover the process of shocking downer cows so that they could pass inspection. Miller says the abuses were happening right under the federal inspectors' noses.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): We cannot judge the USDA's inspection process as successful or effective if it allows tainted meat to enter the school food supply.

AUBREY: The USDA's Kate Houston, a Bush appointee serving as the Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, who testified at the hearing said her department takes the recall very seriously and is redoubling its efforts on all fronts.

She explained communication during the recall, tested the strength of the department's rapid alert system.

Ms. KATE HOUSTON (Deputy Undersecretary, Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services): This is an automated Web-based tool to communicate recall information as quickly as possible following an administrative hold or recall.

AUBREY: Houston says state agencies are the primary contacts, so during the recall, rapid alert messages were sent to state agriculture offices continuously until receipt was acknowledged. Clearly, for Food Service directors such as Dora Rivas in Dallas, the information did not flow as quickly as it might have.

Other changes, however, made by the USDA on school lunch may, indeed, be helping.

Mr. KENNETH HECHT (Executive director, California Food Policy Advocates): USDA has improved the food that they're purchasing. The meat is leaner, for example.

AUBREY: Kenneth Hecht is the executive director of California Food Policy Advocates and has been critic. He says the problem now lies in all the reprocessing. More than half of all the meats, cheeses and vegetables the USDA buys and gives to schools is processed into finished pieces of food like chicken nuggets or steak fingers, adding extra salt and saturated fats. Hecht says the challenge is to convince everyone that fresh and fresh cooked food on children's lunch plates would be much better.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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