Tracing Beef Supply
Is Hurdle for U.S.
JANE ZHANG / Wall Street Journal 5mar2008
football field covered with beef up to
Meat Recalls Mired in Secrecy
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Agriculture Department isn't sure how many schools have been affected by the largest meat recall in the nation, and about 10% of the recalled beef still hasn't been tracked down, an official told the House Education Committee.
While the department has worked with other agencies and groups on the recall, it has faced several challenges to track down the more than 50 million pounds of beef supplied to the National School Lunch Program from Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, Calif., said Kate J. Houston, deputy undersecretary at USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. More schools may have bought beef from Hallmark/Westland commercially.
The USDA relies on states to tell it where the meat went after they got the meat from the USDA, and states in turn are relying on schools to give them that information. Ms. Houston said schools haven't finalized reports on the recall.
In addition, the distribution system for the school lunch program makes it hard to trace products. About 60% of the meat was processed to make meat balls, hamburger patties and other value-added products, and that meat was often mixed with other products. Distributors and state warehouses classified meat by product type, such as beef taco meat, not by manufacturer.
Ms. Houston said the recall has affected nutrition assistance programs in 45 states and the District of Columbia, and that the USDA didn't know the total number of affected schools.
The recall and the uncertainty about where all the meat went has triggered concerns among parents, teachers and lawmakers. "It is unacceptable that the USDA so completely failed to do its job," said George Miller (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "We cannot judge the USDA's inspection process as successful or effective if it allows tainted meat to enter the school food supply."
"A recall such as the Westland case contributes to the public's perception that school food is inferior and of lower quality," said Penny Parham, administrative director of food and nutrition at the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Miami, at the hearing.
Hallmark/Westland, the second-largest beef supplier by pound for the national school lunch program last year, recalled 143 million pounds of beef last month after an undercover video from the Humane Society of the United States showed workers at the plant trying to make sick or injured cattle stand up with electrical-shock devices and forklifts, among others. Cattle that can't walk or stand on their own are generally banned from the nation's food supply. Such "downer" cows can be sources of mad-cow disease, which can cause a rare but fatal brain disorder in humans.
Officials say it is "extremely unlikely" that the meat posed a risk to human health, but the department is requiring all affected products destroyed or rendered inedible.
The USDA bought from Hallmark/Westland about 20% of the ground beef and beef products for federal nutrition assistance programs that serve children, the elderly, the poor and the homeless. The school lunch and breakfast programs are the two largest nutrition assistance programs among the 15 programs. More than 101,000 schools and institutions participate in the school lunch program and about 84,000 in the school breakfast program, feeding about 31 million school children each school day.
source: p.A4 5mar2008