THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

USDA Allows Meat In Schools that Doesn't Meet Fast Food Chains' Standards

How is it that the United States can put a man on the moon, but can't seem to feed its children school lunches that are no healthier than the food served at McDonald's or Jack in the Box?

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

USA Today reporters discovered that meat served at McDonald's and Burger King is tested 10 times more frequently as the ground beef served in school cafeterias. Fast-food chains sample their production lines every fifteen minutes, while the USDA only tests theirs eight times each day.

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

This fact is reprehensible and should be considered an embarrassment to congressional lawmakers. USDA officials and meat industry executives continue to allow our country's school lunch programs to serve as the dumping ground 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 federal government contribution school lunch programs. The USDA though, is driven by two unfortunate factors:
  • Get the food for the lowest price.
  • Prop up prices for commodities in oversupply or that are not in high demand.

What about quality? In 2009 alone, the USDA purchased $151 million of commodity pork to prop up failing industrial pork producers. Even worse is the USDA's purchase of "spent hens" (i.e. worn out, diseased chickens from the factory farm egg industry), which KFC won't even serve to it's customers.

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

Why does meat that is made into dog food served to school children across the country?

Fast Food Gets Taken to Court, Food Safety Wins
To find out why fast-food restaurants are doing a better job in maintaining higher standards, one only needs to look at Jack in the Box. USA Today says that the industry leader has "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 along the West Coast that killed four children and sickened hundreds of customers.

Seattle lawyer, 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 skirting U.S. food safety laws led to a record civil suit settlement, costing the fast-food restaurant more than $160 million in settlements and lost business. As a result, Marler emerged as a primary factor behind why Jack in the Box and McDonald's are leading the way in testing. Unlike the U.S. government, these fast-food chains finally realized 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 produced at the end of the Clinton administration that would have rectified this problem.

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.), Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee on Agriculture and a champion for food safety, called for the temporary closure and investigation into Beef Packers Inc., a Fresno meat facility and 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.

Less than 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 alarming.

It's Obama's Turn Now - Time to Get it Right!
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: 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 any government body, calls for a "review," or to set up a panel to "study" an issue, it just means invitations to "solve" the problem are extended to the very lobbyists who helped create it in the first place. (Please see health care debate!)

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.