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.
TROUBLE ON THE TRAY: Family's nightmare began with secondary infection ORDER UP: Healthy, organic and cheap school lunches?
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.
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."
Marsden calls the government's zero-tolerance policy "courageous" and says the "food safety initiative for the school program has been very successful overall." But he says the Beef Packers case "highlights a potential flaw in the system that should be addressed."
The government could have rejected all the lots. It did not. "The company had the option to include all of the school lunch product in the recall regardless of results of the test, and in my opinion, that's what should have been done," says Marsden, who also is the senior science adviser for the North American Meat Processors Association. "It's just poor decision-making."
Beef Packers supports the government's decision to release the beef for schools but is reluctant to rely on the tests as proof that the beef was salmonella-free.
"Well, I can only say, thank God there were no outbreaks at schools related to any of these products. And that's not saying much," says Mark Klein, a spokesman for Cargill, which owns Beef Packers.
Government officials with the Agricultural Marketing Service, the arm of the USDA that runs the school lunch program, stand behind their decision. In a written statement to USA TODAY, AMS Administrator Rayne Pegg said no meat is sent to schools until "tests confirm the product was not contaminated."
Even so, in response to the USA TODAY investigation, Pegg said the USDA "plans to initiate an independent review" of its "testing procedures and process control requirements" next year.
Since finishing these orders, Beef Packers has bid on no more contracts for the National School Lunch Program, the company and the USDA say. It had ranked among the top seven ground beef producers for schools from 2001 through 2009.
The problems this summer at Beef Packers should not have surprised the USDA or AMS. Beef Packers, bought by Cargill in 2006, has a checkered relationship with the program that provides food for 31 million schoolchildren across the nation. In particular, the company has been haunted by its ground beef testing positive for salmonella.
Children are particularly vulnerable to food-borne illnesses. USA TODAY identified hundreds of outbreaks at schools caused by pathogens from 1998 to 2007, the last year for which data were available. The outbreaks sickened at least 23,000 kids.
Although school districts buy most of the products served to kids at schools — often through food service management companies — the U.S. government provides much of the meat through its commodities program. USA TODAY analyzed federal data on more than 360,000 orders placed by the government for beef, poultry and other products sent to schools.
The newspaper also examined results from more than 146,000 tests for bacteria including salmonella and E. coli, and reports of violations of government standards, complaints against producers by schools and suspensions of companies by the AMS.
Among providers of ground beef, Beef Packers stood out.
Government documents show the company failed to meet program requirements more than 40 times and had more than 1 million pounds of its ground beef rejected because of salmonella contamination during the 2003-04 school year.
In the following years, the company was suspended from the school lunch program three times — twice in 2007 and once in 2008. Two of those suspensions came after the company repeatedly failed to produce ground beef that was free of salmonella, USA TODAY found.
Those suspensions lasted just a few days, until the company showed the government that it fixed its problems. Even so, during the past three years, the company failed to meet requirements more often than all but one other ground beef supplier.
Beef Packers also ranked high among those whose meat frequently tested positive for dangerous pathogens. In 2007 and 2008, its rate of positive tests for salmonella measured almost twice the rate that's typical for the nation's best-performing, high-volume ground beef producers, USA TODAY found.
Still, the company kept getting government business. Since 2003, Beef Packers has garnered almost $60 million in contracts.
"When you're dealing with repeated violations, why do we continue to reward these companies?" asks Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture.
Until this week, many details that would help gauge a company's performance remained hidden from public view. The USDA said it was its policy, for instance, not to say which companies tested positive for pathogens.
In response to a USA TODAY request under the Freedom of Information Act submitted in October, the USDA released data from the tests but initially withheld the names of the companies that corresponded with each result. Divulging their identities "would discourage companies from contracting to supply product for the National School Lunch Program and hamper our ability to provide the safe and nutritious foods to America's school children," USDA spokesman Bobby Gravitz wrote in an e-mail to USA TODAY.
"That's unbelievable," says Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and a member of the committee that oversees the lunch program. "We should have transparency in testing. They should be required to disclose that information."
The newspaper appealed the USDA's decision. On Monday, the department released the names of the companies.
Why no recall?
When the USDA and Beef Packers issued the summer recall, Colorado health officials were gratified.
At least 21 Colorado residents had gotten sick from the Newport strain, and until this summer, the USDA had never championed a recall of raw ground beef that contained salmonella. Scientists agree that cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of 165 degrees should kill the pathogen. Even so, Colorado state epidemiologist Alicia Cronquist lauds the decision.
"We think it's quite a dangerous thing to have multidrug-resistant salmonella in your ground beef," Cronquist says. Antibiotics typically control such infections.
USDA and AMS officials say they had no such concerns that the strain was in the school orders produced in June by Beef Packers. In written responses provided to the newspaper, officials cite three primary reasons for not including the school products in the recall:
•Tests on the ground beef were negative for pathogens.
The government relies on testing to help verify efforts to keep salmonella out of the production process. Samples of the finished ground beef are taken by AMS workers and tested at a lab that contracts with the government.
The tests have shortcomings. Typically, the samples represent just a fraction of the order — sometimes about one-1000th of 1%. In 2006, the USDA occasionally ran two tests for bacteria on the same batch of beef and the results were sometimes different.
Microbiologists aren't convinced that a single negative test proves much. "You are looking at a very small sample size relative to the lot, so you probably are going to miss it if it's in there," says Ewen Todd, a professor at Michigan State University.
Todd says the government could have tested the orders more than once. It did not, records show. "In this case, you know (salmonella) was in the system, so there's a good chance it was in that (school lunch) product," Todd says. "If they wanted to be certain, they at least would have done a lot more testing. …They should have tripled the number or done tenfold the number."
Others agree. "That blows my mind that they would accept those lots without a lot of additional testing," says Barbara Kowalcyk, a biostatistician at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention. Kowalcyk understands the risks children face from dangerous pathogens. In 2001, her 2-year-old son, Kevin, died of complications from an E. coli O157:H7 infection.
•The beef used to make school products is segregated from commercial products, so any contamination in commercial products should not carry over to the beef produced for schools.
The meat for schools "is made from raw beef source material that is targeted solely for AMS product," explains Jerold Mande, the USDA's acting undersecretary for food safety. "The source materials and the finished product are subject to AMS testing protocol and required to meet all contractual specifications."
AMS tests the meat destined for schools twice. The first test screens the "source material" — the raw chunks of beef that have yet to be ground. The second test examines the beef after grinding but before it is shipped.
Shortly before and during the dates of the recall, government inspectors had found evidence of problemsin the beef at least six different times — in both the "source material" and the finished product, documents obtained by USA TODAY show.
When the recall committee met Aug. 5, the members knew, for instance, that "source material" used by Beef Packers had screened positive for pathogens on June 2 and June 12.
They also knew that inspectors had identified problems with "source material" at Beef Packers on May 28, June 16 and June 23.
They knew that a test on one sample from ground beef meant for schools, taken on June 9, also came back positive — this time for the Newport strain.
They knew that the Newport strain had surfaced in the plant before, in a May 21 test on commercial beef.
And they knew of another matter involving the company. Inspectors had found a different strain of salmonella at Beef Packers earlier that summer.
Experts say the indicators were clear. "Obviously the plant had an ongoing contamination problem," Kowalcyk says. Adds Marsden: "It appears they had a systemic problem."
•The recall committee had no evidence that anyone had gotten sick from beef produced on the days products for schools were made.
The USDA recall committee determined the scope of the recall by looking at dates on which the commercial ground beef implicated in the illnesses had been made: June 5, 8, 10, 11, 12, 15, 19, 22 and 23.
The food sent to schools was "produced on days not associated with any illnesses," Mande says: June 6, 13 and 20.
That explanation offers little solace, given how production for the school lunch program works.
USDA officials know, for instance, that Beef Packers made no commercial orders on the days that beef for the schools was produced. Meat from those dates was sent to processors throughout July, but by Aug. 5 — the day officials met to consider the scope of the recall — the beef made for schools likely had not been served to anyone; many schools were not in session.
Because the beef made for the schools likely had not been consumed by Aug. 5, no illnesses could have been associated with those production days.
Where's the beef?
The decision to accept the school orders from Beef Packers rankles DeLauro and other lawmakers, who contend that the USDA should have been more cautious in what it sent to schools. Documents reviewed by USA TODAY show no evidence that officials considered recalling the orders headed for schools.
"In my opinion, that's criminal," says Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., who chairs the House subcommittee on healthy families. Last month, McCarthy joined Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in calling for an investigation of the risk of contaminated beef getting into school lunches.
"We're putting our children at that kind of risk?" McCarthy asks. "Speaking as a mother, my goodness. We put that out to PTAs across this country, and we'd have an uprising."
Gillibrand, the New York senator, says she plans to champion legislation that would require recalls on any products destined for schools that were made within dates covered by a commercial recall — regardless of what government testing shows. "It should never have been sent to the schools," Gillibrand says.
Klein, the spokesman for Beef Packers' parent company Cargill, defends the government's decision. He points out that he knows of no more outbreaks attributed to the beef. "It's not a good answer to say that we've essentially been proven right … but in reality, that is how it played out."
Klein may be right; the government has recorded no recent salmonella outbreaks among schoolkids. But, as Colorado epidemiologist Cronquist points out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate "there's 38 salmonella cases for every one that gets reported … The vast majority of salmonella cases we never tie to an outbreak. They're what we call sporadic."
Further complicating matters: Neither the government nor Beef Packers knows where the ground beef made for schools during the recall period is today — or whether it has been consumed.
The USDA loses track of it when it is sent to a processor, where it might be made into taco meat or other products. And although federal records also show schools in at least six states — including Illinois — were entitled to the Beef Packers meat, officials at the state and federal level say ground beef from one supplier is often mixed with other orders from other suppliers before being shipped to states.
As Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, says of the meat: "It could be anywhere right now."