US: Lag time in tracing tainted food puts schoolkids at risk
Posted: March 11th, 2010 - 2:53pm
Source: USA Today
Food director Jackie Anderson didn't get word last month until it was too late — after students in the Arlington (Texas) Independent School District already had eaten tacos filled with beef that should have been destroyed.
None of them got sick, but the meat was among 5.8 million pounds of beef recalled since January by Huntington Meat Packing. Federal inspectors found that the Montebello, Calif., company had made the beef under unsanitary conditions and concluded that some of the meat could contain potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria.
When the recall was announced on Jan. 18, Anderson had no reason to believe it would affect the 63,000 students in her school district outside Dallas. She hadn't bought beef from the company, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — which donates 15% to 20% of all food served in schools through the National School Lunch Program — also had not bought Huntington beef.
When the recall was expanded Feb. 12, a company that used Huntington meat to make tacos and burritos began contacting customers. And on Feb. 17 — just hours after an Arlington school served some of those tacos — Anderson became one of scores of administrators nationwide who gained a firsthand look at the difficulties of determining whether recalled food has reached schools.
Recall meeting today
Federal officials meet in Washington today to discuss ways to trace more quickly the path of contaminated food. Food often is repackaged and resold before reaching consumers, and the USDA wants to find ways to ensure that recalled products are pulled from circulation before they're sold or served, whether in stores or at schools.
No one knows how many schools got products containing the recalled beef. A USA TODAY review of state and federal records, local news reports and accounts from food service contractors suggests at least several hundred.
"For us, it was primarily just different varieties of pre-made, frozen burritos," says Karen Cutler, a spokesman for Aramark, a food service contractor for more than 500 school districts nationwide.