Johnny Can You Spell Salmonella? U.S. School Lunch vs. Jack in the Box | Civil Eats

Johnny Can You Spell Salmonella? U.S. School Lunch vs. Jack in the Box

How is it that a country can put a man on the moon, but can’t seem to feed it’s children school lunches that are safer than those eaten at McDonald’s or Jack in the Box?

In the past 10 years more than 23,000 school children have become sick as a result of hundreds of food poisoning outbreaks in our nation’s lunchrooms. A recent investigation by USA Today found that the meat served in U.S. school cafeterias faces less testing and lower safety standards than the mystery meat in Big Macs and Whopper Juniors.

USA Today reporters discovered that meat served at McDonald’s, Burger King and Costco is tested as much as 10 times more often as the ground beef served in America’s school cafeterias. While fast-food chains take samples on their production lines every 15 minutes, the USDA only tests 8 times a day.

In addition to testing more frequently, fast-food chains also set more stringent limits on so-called indicator bacteria. In the case of generic E. coli, the USDA allows 10 times more bacteria than Jack in the Box!

This fact should be a national embarrassment to all members of Congress, USDA officials and meat industry executives who have allowed our nation’s school lunch programs to become the dumping grounds for cheap commodity products that feed the bottom line of corporate agribusiness.

Each year the USDA purchases more than $1 billion in cheap commodities as part of the federal contribution to the school lunch program. Regretfully, the USDA is driven by two factors: get the food for the lowest price and prop up prices for commodities that are in oversupply or are unattractive to business purchases. Not quality. In 2009 alone, the USDA purchased more than $151 million of commodity pork to prop up failing industrial pork producers. Even worse is the USDA’s purchase of “spent hens”, i.e. the worn out, diseased chickens of the factory farm egg industry, which not even KFC will serve to it’s customers.

Previous reports have estimated that nearly 30% of the more than 100 million egg-laying hens culled each year find their way into our children’s lunch via the National School Lunch Program. The rest ends up as Alpo.

Why is it that meat that should end up as dog food is being fed to our nation’s school children?

Fast Food Gets Taken to Court, Food Safety Wins

To find out why fast-food restaurants are doing a better job, one only need to look at the industry leader Jack in the Box, which USA Today says, “pioneered many of the safety standards now used across the fast-food industry.”

Seventeen years ago, Jack in the Box was on financial and PR life support as it was reeling from the notorious 1993 E. Coli outbreak at multiple restaurants across the West Coast that killed four children and sickened hundreds of customers.

A then unknown Seattle lawyer named Bill Marler found that Jack in the Box’s improper handling and undercooking of tainted hamburger meat was responsible for the outbreak. Marler’s determination to fight corporations who skirt U.S. food safety laws led to a $50 million class-action settlement and is a major reason why Jack in the Box and McDonald’s are leading the way in testing and proper handling of meat they serve their customers. Unlike the U.S. government, these fast-food chains finally decided that killing customers is bad for business. How long will it take the USDA to reach the same conclusion?

Unfortunately the meat industry killed reforms created at the end of the Clinton administration that would have rectified this problem.

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Once Upon a Time – Bush Kills Clinton Era Reform

In 2000, Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman implemented a science-based “zero tolerance” policy on salmonella and E. coli in meat sold to U.S schools. Almost immediately, the industrial meat lobby started to squeal.

Within months of taking office, Bush officials were gutting Clinton’s new food safety policies in favor of Industrial Meat, which found the new regulations too “burdensome.” Rather than stepping up testing, the new Bush USDA proposed the irradiation of meat for school lunches and the creation of  “a system to weed out suppliers who did not meet standards.”

Unfortunately, this weeding out process has proven ineffectual.

In the past five years alone, at least six orders of ground beef sold to schools “exceeded the limits” of “indicator bacteria” which would have been rejected by fast-food restaurants.

Most recently, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn, the chairwoman for the House appropriations committee on agriculture and a champion for food safety, called for the temporary closure of a Fresno meat facility, and an investigation into Beef Packers Inc., the 7th largest supplier of ground beef to U.S. schools. The Cargill-owned meat processor has a long history as a habitual violator.

DeLauro’s concern stems from the fact that the Beef Packers facility has failed to meet USDA standards more than 40 times in recent years and also had more than a million pounds of ground beef rejected due to salmonella contamination during the 2003-2004 school year alone.

Barely a week ago, Beef Packers Inc. issued their second recall for the year regarding meat contaminated with an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella. In August, the California meat processing company recalled more than 800,000 pounds of contaminated meat. Somehow the USDA purchased 425,000 pounds of meat made during the same time frame as the contamination, even though 1 of 4 test samples tested positive for a virulent strain of salmonella, Newport, which food safety experts say should have disqualified that batch of meat from school lunches, but it did not.

For any parent concerned about their children’s health, these standards should be cause for alarm.

It’s Obama’s Turn Now – Time to Get it Right!

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While this problem didn’t start in the Obama administration, it needs to end here. The quickest way for this to happen is for the USDA to stop providing cover for the meat industry and to start refusing to buy from the bottom of the barrel.

The good news is that Secretary Vilsack has promised “an independent review of testing requirements for ground beef” that the USDA sends to school.

The problem is: What will this “independent review” mean for food safety in America’s school lunchrooms? And who will do the review? Typically when the USDA, or almost any government body, calls for a “review” or to set up a panel to “study” an issue, it inevitably means invitations to “solve” the problem are extended to the very lobbyists who helped create it in the first place.

If the Obama administration wants to prove their determination to protect our children’s health, they can stop playing chicken with our children’s lives by catering to every agribusiness lobby that ventures their way and start standing up for the American people.

The USDA needs to appoint an expert panel that includes public health experts and a couple of the retail and restaurant food safety experts who are responsible for the high safety standards at McDonalds and Jack in the Box. Obama should leave the lobbyists and the professors whose research is paid for by industry out of this process. This is one time when most people can agree; our nation’s children must come first.

David Murphy is the founder and director of Food Democracy Now!, a sixth generation Iowan, and a writer and advocate for sustainable agriculture. Read more >

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  1. What a shame. It is really disgusting that our schools are held to lower standards.

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