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."