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Salmonella Ground Beef Recall Didn't Include Ground Beef Destined for Schools

Dec 2, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP Beef Packers Inc., the company at the center of a Salmonella outbreak last summer, is a major supplier to the National School Lunch Program.  Yet, when the company issued a recall of potentially Salmonella-tainted ground beef last summer, it only recalled products at the retail level.  According to a report in USA Today, the Salmonella recall did not include ground beef sent to schools.

Beef Packers' Salmonella recall included over 800,000 pounds of ground beef products distributed to retail distribution centers in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Utah.  According to USA Today, the August 6 recall was issued aft firm's ground beef was implicated in at least 39 cases of Salmonella in 11 states.  To make matters worse, the particular strain of Salmonella involved in the outbreak was resistant to many antibiotics.

According to USA Today,  the federal government purchased 450,000 lbs of  Beef Packers ground beef that had been 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, one of which tested positive for the same strain involved in the outbreak.

According to USA Today, because three of the four orders going to schools tested Salmonella-free, they were not included in the recall.  But a food safety expert told USA Today that the negative Salmonella tests were no guarantee that the ground beef was free of the pathogen, because Salmonella is usually not evenly distributed throughout ground beef.  

"Ninety-four percent of the time, I won't find it even though it's there," James Marsden, a professor of food safety and security at Kansas State University.  "Since one of the four lots tested positive, my recommendation would have been to include all four lots in the recall."

However, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), 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.  Further, ground beef heading to schools is tested twice - before and after grinding.  

But according to the USA Today investigation, problems were found in the Beef Packers meat at least six different times during both rounds of testing. The "source material" used by Beef Packers had screened positive for pathogens on June 2 and June 12.  Inspectors also identified problems with "source material" at Beef Packers on May 28, June 16 and June 23, USA Today said.

The USDA also maintains that there had been no reports of illnesses among school children who had eaten Beef Packers products.  But as USA Today points out, schools weren't in session during the Salmonella outbreak.  Beef Packers' ground beef destined for schools had not yet been consumed.

And here's the best part.  According to USA Today, 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 doesn't track ground beef once it has been sent to the processor, and ground beef from one supplier is often mixed with other orders from other suppliers before being shipped to states. It could be in schools right now.

Government officials with the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the arm of the USDA that runs the school lunch program, stand behind their decision not to recall Beef Packers' ground beef destined for schools. 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."  However, Pegg said the USDA "plans to initiate an independent review" of its "testing procedures and process control requirements" next year.

USA Today also reported that since finishing the three orders, Beef Packers has not bid on any further contracts for the National School Lunch Program.

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