Why a Recall of Tainted Beef Didn't Include School Lunches

When health officials identified an outbreak of salmonella poisonings last summer, they traced the dangerous strain of salmonella to ground beef made at Beef Packers Inc., a major supplier to the National School Lunch Program. At least 39 people reported getting sick in 11 states, and doctors found that the salmonella infections resisted many common antibiotics. By early August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture convened a committee of experts and urged Beef Packers to recall 825,769 pounds of ground beef made in June at its facility in Fresno.

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The recall, announced by the governmentAug. 6, covered only ground beef sent to certain retailers. In the days after it was announced, government and company spokesmen said meat sent to schools was not included. Documents obtained by USA TODAY through the Freedom of Information Act reveal a more complicated story — one that raises questions about whether the government took adequate steps to ensure that meat it bought for schoolchildren during the same period was safe.

Even as public health officials told residents to throw out recalled products from the Fresno plant, the federal government paid Beef Packers hundreds of thousands of dollars for almost 450,000 pounds of ground beef made from June 5 to June 23, the dates covered by the recall.Four orders were produced for the school lunch program during that period, a USA TODAY investigation found. One tested positive for salmonella Newport, the strain that prompted the recall and can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting; that order was rejected by the government. Tests on the other three orders found no salmonella, and the beef was shipped from the plant before the recall was announced.

Because samples from the three orders of beef appeared salmonella-free, the meat made for schools was not included in the recall. But lawmakers and food safety experts say the three orders should have been rejected nonetheless. In part, that's because the tests that led the government to release the beef are inconsistent and often wrong, says James Marsden, a professor of food safety and security at Kansas State University.

'Zero-tolerance' policy

The government has a "zero-tolerance" policy for the pathogens E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella in ground beef bound for schools. That means any sample that tests positive — such as the June 9 order that was destined for schools — must be rejected.

In the case of Beef Packers, the beef eventually sent to schools was produced on June 6, 13, and 20; each of those production runs came the day after the same assembly lines and equipment were used to produce beef that was recalled later. The assembly lines are cleaned each night, and Marsden says it is "very unlikely" salmonella would have survived those cleanings. Still, he remains concerned that the pathogen found another way into the ground beef bound for schools.

Because salmonella is seldom distributed evenly in any lot of beef, "94% of the time, I won't find it even though it's there," Marsden says of testing. "Since one of the four lots tested positive, my recommendation would have been to include all four lots in the recall."

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