Today’s USA Today has a feature story today about meat served in the U.S. school lunch program and asks why certain batches of meat were excluded from a Salmonella-related recall and outbreak last year. What stands out is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture initially refused to match suppliers with positive test results as part of an analysis of 146,000 tests for bacteria including salmonella and E. coli.
USDA spokesman Bobby Gravitz wrote in an e-mail to USA Today that 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."
The newspaper appealed the USDA’s decision. On Monday, the department released the names of the companies.
Although one company, Beef Packers Inc., appeared to stand out for the wrong reasons – 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 — the company kept getting government business. Since 2003, Beef Packers has garnered almost $60 million in contracts.
That sounds eerily familiar to what happened in the 2005 E. coli O157 outbreak in Wales that killed five-year-old Mason Jones (left) and sickened another 160 kids eating their school lunches, where buyers were quick to look the other way to save a pound. A public inquiry into the outbreak concluded the procurement process was, “seriously flawed in relation to food safety.”
One way to push food safety through the system is to demand continuous improvement from suppliers in terms of lowering the number of pathogen positive results. Any consumer-oriented company is going to insist on evidence of such steps or they will take their business elsewhere. Those overseeing school lunches for U.S. kids should demand the same.
What also stands out is that despite the focus on food safety of the feature and an additional heart-wrenching story about a child sickened 11 years ago through the school lunch program, a third story about a company trying to provide low-cost, healthier, natural (whatever that means) school lunches makes no mention of – food safety. The story cites a sample lunch that may now contain fresh lettuce and tomatoes in a wrap, rather than the canned or cooked variety of fruits and veggies. Fresh is great, but introduces an array of microbial food safety and supplier management issues that isn’t even mentioned. Sorta ironical.