Posted on Thu, October 08, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
1 Comments | Categories: Contaminated Food, Labeling, Meat, News, Current Events, Policy, School Food,
by Debbie Lehmann, the editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
Ive been feeling relatively optimistic about the USDA commodity program lately. Offerings are heavy on the meat and the cheese, but they have gotten much healthier over the years. When it comes to providing nutritious food, it seems like cafeterias face larger obstacles, such as maintaining student participation and keeping within tight budgets.
Well, at least thats what I thought until this weekend. Now, after reading The New York TimesҠterrifying report about the ground beef inspection system, I am convinced that the commodity program has a critical role to play in changing the school food status quo.
The Times article a scathing indictment of both the meat processing system and our food safety system traced the meat from a hamburger that sickened 22-year-old Stephanie Smith and left her paralyzed for life. The ground beef was produced by Cargill under the label American Chefs Selection Angus Beef Patties, and it was contaminated with a virulent strain of E. coli.
A number of sickening flaws in the meat processing system led to the E. coli in Stephanie Smiths hamburger. Notably, the meat in Cargills patties was a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria. The Times goes on:
Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows. Yet Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. The United States Department of Agriculture, which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination.
Unwritten agreements between some companies appear to stand in the way of ingredient testing. Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli, according to officials at two large grinding companies. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinders discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.
What does this have to do with school lunch commodities? A lot. Cargill is a major supplier of meat to the National School Lunch Program. So are other processors who got bad press in the Times expose. Theres Tyson, which will not supply its products to Costco since the supermarket insists on testing beef trimmings before grinding (in other words, Tyson cant guarantee its products and does not want to be held accountable). Then theres Beef Products Inc., which grinds fatty trimmings into fine lean textured beef. The company treats trimmings with ammonia to kill E. coli, and a Beef Products-financed study found that this process was effective. But E. coli has shown up in Beef Products items destined for school cafeterias three times in the past three years.
Considering all this, its easy to understand why school cafeterias favor pre-processed chicken nuggets and taco meat over raw ingredients. Yes, processed food is a matter of time and money. But its also a matter of ensuring that students dont get sick. Cafeterias feed thousands of children every day, and most workers do not have extensive training in food safety. Even if cooks do follow all the necessary precautions, there is still risk of contamination. According to the Times:
Food scientists have registered increasing concern about the virulence of this pathogen since only a few stray cells can make someone sick, and they warn that federal guidance to cook meat thoroughly and to wash up afterward is not sufficient. A test by The Times found that the safe handling instructions are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen.
Many districts have banned raw meat entirely, and given the products theyre working with, maybe thats a good thing. But step back for a moment and look at whats happening: we are allowing our schools to be held hostage by processors like Tyson because of concerns about food safety. Were trading in an immediate health hazard for a long-term health hazard. As it is right now, healthy food and safe food are pitted against each other, and safe food, understandably, is winning.
If the USDA is serious about providing healthy school meals to American children, this is going to have to change. And in order for it to change, the USDA is going to have to give schools commodity meat that they can trust. Ultimately, serving real, nutritious food, means ditching highly processed foods and cooking more from scratch. We need to make it possible for schools to do that without worrying about making students sick.
The commodity program has certainly gotten healthier over the last decade. But as long as the government hands schools industrial meat and the safety concerns that come with it, school lunches wont be able to make much progress.