Days after it was recalled for possible listeria contamination, deli turkey from Wampler Foods Inc. in Montgomery County was served to high school students Wednesday in the Cumberland Valley School District in Mechanicsburg.
The Cumberland County district got the turkey through the national school lunch program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which announced and is overseeing the Wampler recall of 27.4 million pounds of ready-to-eat chicken and turkey.
Cumberland Valley Assistant Superintendent Butch Bricker said Friday that Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Food Distribution, which administers the USDA lunch program, didn’t inform Cumberland Valley until Thursday that the Wampler meat had been shipped to the district.
The food bureau’s director said his office didn’t hear from the USDA until Tuesday afternoon that schools in Pennsylvania were affected. It took another two days to identify and contact the districts that had the recalled meat, and Cumberland Valley was one of the last contacted.
No illnesses have been reported at Cumberland Valley, which served 52 pounds of the turkey at a salad bar, Bricker said. The state Department of Agriculture is testing leftovers. If the meat was tainted, school officials will monitor the students, given that the incubation period is up to 10 weeks.
The meat from Wampler’s Franconia Township plant was recalled last week. One local school district, Upper Perkiomen, received a USDA shipment Tuesday. Later that day, the Bureau of Food Distribution told Superintendent Anita Dutton not to use the meat.
Northwestern Lehigh and Northern Lehigh are also among 14 school districts throughout the state that received recalled Wampler products through the lunch program, according to the food bureau.
Other districts, including Southern Lehigh and Palmerton Area, received recalled Wampler meat through private distributors. Still others, including Quakertown Community, Bangor Area and Allentown, aren’t using Wampler meat they had in stock even though it’s not part of the recall.
Besides Cumberland Valley, no Pennsylvania district had reported as of Friday that any of the recalled meat has been served. No area district has reported illnesses caused by listeria-tainted meat.
Barry Shutt, director of the Bureau of Food Distribution, said the delay in contacting school districts happened because the USDA initially believed the Pennsylvania shipments had gone to Maryland. The confusion wasn’t straightened out until Tuesday afternoon, and that’s when his office got word that Pennsylvania schools had the Wampler turkey.
He said the mix-up was traced to a warehouse in Sunbury, Northumberland County, that holds school lunch food for both states.
Once the food bureau knew Pennsylvania was involved, Shutt said, its employees had to search records to determine which districts received the recalled meat. Then they had to call all of the districts, which had gotten a total of 53 cases. ”We started getting our list together,” he said.
It just happened that Cumberland Valley, which had received two cases of deli turkey, was one of the last districts the food bureau identified and called, Shutt said. ”Ironically, had we called Cumberland Valley first,” he said, maybe the turkey wouldn’t have been served.
Shutt said the tracking system worked well and it was something of a fluke that Cumberland Valley served the meat so soon after receiving it on Oct. 11. ”Usually a school will get stuff in and they won’t menu it immediately,” he said.
A USDA spokesman said Friday he would try to provide a chronology of how information passed from the USDA to Shutt’s food bureau in Harrisburg but did not call with the information.
Bricker, the Cumberland Valley administrator, said there hadn’t been a reaction from parents yet because they ”are just finding out.” He said he was working on putting information on the district’s Web site.
Susan Weidner, food services supervisor at Northwestern Lehigh, said the district was notified Wednesday that it had been shipped a case of the recalled meat on Sept. 26. It will remain in the freezer at the middle school until she’s told what to do with it.
”It’s best to remember that listeria should not be a problem in school-age children unless they have an auto-immune disease,” she said.
Paul Horner, food services director at the Northern Lehigh School District, said he received five cases of the recalled meat through the USDA school lunch program on Oct. 11.
A USDA representative called him Monday and told him to check the plant number on his delivery to see if it was among the recalled meat. ”It was,” Horner said. ”So we were told to hang on to it. There was no chance we were going to serve it.”
The 50 pounds of deli turkey is being kept in freezers at several of the district’s schools. ”It’s beautiful meat, but it’s on hold until the USDA tells me what to do with it,” Horner said.
Palmerton Area School District cafeteria manager Mike Lucas said the district received some of the recalled meat through a private vendor and returned it when informed of the recall.
”As soon as we hear about a problem, we check,” Lucas said. ”We don’t wait for someone to tell us we might have a problem.”
The Wampler plant has been closed since Saturday as workers clean it to prevent further contamination. Pilgrim’s Pride spokesman Ray Atkinson said he did not know when it would reopen.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has said the Franconia plant was probably the source of a listeriosis outbreak in the Northeast that has killed seven people and sickened 39 others. Wampler, a division of Pilgrim’s Pride, maintains that the link hasn’t been proved.
Not everyone exposed to the listeria bacterium gets sick. Much like West Nile virus, listeriosis tends to affect the elderly or the very young, the pregnant or people with compromised immune systems. Symptoms often include fever, muscle aches, nausea or diarrhea.