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Dec. 9 2009 - 10:29 am | 34 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Warning: School lunch may be hazardous to health

When I was in high school, one of the most infamous choices on the cafeteria menu was “Soup with Melted Spoon.” This was soup — chicken noodle,  tomato, beef something or other — served up so hot that the plastic spoon softened and transformed into a gooey glop that looked like a withering flower. It was quite an educational experience. Imagine the science applications. What’s the boiling point of plastic? How many sips do you have to take until you get second degree burns on your tongue? Can the human body digest plastic?


Well it turns out that school lunches today present a health hazard of a different sort. USA Today reports that the government is providing schools with millions of pounds of meat that wouldn’t make the cut at fast food restaurants like KFC or Mickey D’s. The damning report reveals that fast food chains and retailers like Costco test their meat five to 10 times more than the USDA tests the meat it sends to schools.

While the meat industry has tightened its standards in recent years, the Agricultural Marketing Service, the agency that buys meat for schools, hasn’t changed its standards since 2000. And that’s unconscionable, especially given that for many of the students who qualify for free lunch, the food served at school is their best — or only — meal of the day.

“We simply are not giving our kids in schools the same level of quality and safety as you get when you go to many fast-food restaurants,” says J. Glenn Morris, professor of medicine and director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. “We are not using those same standards.”

via Fast-food standards for meat top those for school lunches – USATODAY.com.

You always know that officials don’t have a reasonable explanation for a report like this when they won’t sit down for an interview and reply to a reporter’s questions with written statements. And that’s exactly the response that USA Today got from an AMS administrator and Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack. A review of testing requirements for beef sent to schools is set for next year. And that’s not soon enough, given the potential life-shattering effects of food-borne illnesses.  (Warning: If you enjoy a burger every now and then, don’t read the link, because you just might swear off beef for good.)

How did this happen? It’s not about money, according to experts quoted in the article.

The AMS could “very easily” raise the standards for federally purchased school lunch meat, says Barry Carpenter, a former AMS official who helped set up the current sampling and testing requirements in 2000. “If I was still at AMS, I’d say, ‘Where are we (with today’s rules) and where do we need to tighten them?’ “

Carpenter, now head of the National Meat Association, notes that raising AMS standards “wouldn’t cost much,” and it would help combat perceptions that the school lunch program is “a market of last resort” for meat that can’t pass muster with commercial buyers.

It’s time to change the menu before this becomes downright Dickensian.


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    Sadly, the USDA has an absolutely atrocious record with regards to beef and school lunches, stretching back decades. It was always seen as the “buyer of last resort” and purchased the cheapest meat, which was most likely to contain pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella. These microbes exist in the digestive system of cows, and reach the meat when it comes into contact with feces. This happens routinely in huge factory slaughterhouses, because to them speed (and therefore profit) is much more important than product safety. Attempts by the government to regulate the beef industry are fought with extreme prejudice by its powerful lobby. They scream and howl, claiming that such regulations stifle their competitiveness and drive up prices. When fast food companies such as McDonalds demand certain safety standards, however, they act quickly and efficiently. Extremely thorough testing demanded by Jack in the Box after the deaths caused by E. coli, for example, raises the price for ground beef by about 1 cent per pound.

    In 1999, after discovering widespread Salmonella contamination in the meat from Supreme Beef, one of the largest beef suppliers to the school meals program, the USDA took the highly unusual step of removing its inspectors from the plants, effectively shutting the company down. Supreme Beef sued, arguing that Salmonella was a natural organism, and a federal judge in Texas ordered the inspectors back to the plant one day later. He later ruled that the presence of Salmonella did not indicate unsanitary conditions, and that Supreme Beef was not responsible for contamination that could have been contaminated at a slaughterhouse. A few weeks after the one-day shutdown, the inspectors detected E. Coli 0157:H7, and the company voluntarily recalled 180,000 pounds of meat (the USDA could not force them to recall it, only suggest that they do). A month and a half after that, the USDA was again purchasing from Supreme Beef and supplying that meat to schools.

    Much more information on this topic is available in the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. Much of the book, including a portion of the section on school lunches called “what kids eat”, is available on Google Books – http://books.google.com/books?id=yNFN1OpnkBkC&lpg=PP1&dq=fast%20food%20nation&pg=PA218

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    I spent a good chunk of my adult life as an arts reporter/critic/columnist for the Boston Globe. Among other things, I covered the cultural wars of the early 1990s (remember Mapplethorpe?), reviewed theater, and profiled all sorts of interesting characters. I also wrote an early column about online culture, which led me to become one of the first online war correspondents during the conflict in Kosovo, an odd but exhilarating gig for an arts maven. While I was a fellow in the National Arts Journalism program, a colleague handed me a gloomy article called “Print is Dead.” I eventually got the message and took a buyout from the Globe in 2001. I had vague dreams of saving the world, but instead had three kids in 17 months. Therein lies my newfound interest in public education. I am hoping to create a dialogue about what’s wrong, what’s right, and what’s up in our schools today.

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