In the past three years, the government has provided the nation's schools with millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn't meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants, from Jack in the Box and other burger places to chicken chains such as KFC, a USA TODAY investigation found.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the meat it buys for the National School Lunch Program "meets or exceeds standards in commercial products."
That isn't always the case. McDonald's, Burger King and Costco, for instance, are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens. They test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day.
And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef.
For chicken, the USDA has supplied schools with thousands of tons of meat from old birds that might otherwise go to compost or pet food. Called "spent hens" because they're past their egg-laying prime, the chickens don't pass muster with Colonel Sanders— KFC won't buy them — and they don't pass the soup test, either. The Campbell Soup Company says it stopped using them a decade ago based on "quality considerations."
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"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."
It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 2000, then-Agriculture secretary Dan Glickman directed the USDA to adopt "the highest standards" for school meat. He cited concerns that fast-food chains had tougher safety and quality requirements than those set by the USDA for schools, and he vowed that "the disparity would exist no more."
Today, USDA rules for meat sent to schools remain more stringent than the department's minimum safety requirements for meat sold at supermarkets. But those government rules have fallen behind the increasingly tough standards that have evolved among fast-food chains and more selective retailers.
Morris, who used to run the USDA office that investigates food-borne illnesses, says the department's purchases of meat that doesn't satisfy higher-end commercial standards are especially worrisome because the meat goes to schools. It's not just that children are more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses because of their fledgling immune systems; it's also because there's less assurance that school cafeteria workers will cook the meat well enough to kill any pathogens that might slip through the USDA's less stringent safety checks.
USDA-purchased meat is donated to almost every school district in the country and served to 31 million students a day, 62% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals. President Obama noted earlier this year that, for many children, school lunches are "their most nutritious meal — sometimes their only meal — of the day."
Next year, Congress will revisit the Child Nutrition Act, which governs the lunch program.
"If there are higher quality and safety standards, the government should set them," says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. "Ensuring the safety of food in schools is something we'll look at closely."
Officials with the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the USDA agency that buys meat for the school lunch program, insist that schools get top-notch products.
AMS standards for meat sent to schools have been "extremely successful in protecting against food-borne pathogens," AMS Administrator Rayne Pegg says in a written statement. She notes that AMS oversight, inspections and tests of that meat exceed those required for meat sold to the general public.
The AMS also has a "zero-tolerance" policy that requires rejection of meat that tests positive for salmonella or E. coli O157:H7, pathogens that can cause serious illness or death.
Still, after USA TODAY presented USDA officials with its findings, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack promised an independent review of testing requirements for ground beef that the AMS sends to schools. The review, set for next year, is meant "to ensure the food served to our school children is as safe as possible," Vilsack says in a statement.
Tougher standards for school meat would better protect students, experts say. Today's AMS program "is a sort of snapshot of the way things were in (2000), whereas the industry has continued to clamp down," says James Marsden, a Kansas State University professor who advises the meat industry on safety. "It needs to be modernized."
USA TODAY examined about 150,000 tests on beef purchased by the AMS for the school lunch program. The agency buys more than 100 million pounds of beef a year for schools, and the vast majority of it would satisfy the standards of most commercial buyers. But USA TODAY also found cases in which the agency bought meat that retailers and fast-food chains would have rejected.
Like the AMS, many big commercial buyers reject meat that tests positive for salmonella or E. coli O157:H7. But many fast-food chains and premium retailers set tougher limits than the AMS on so-called indicator bacteria. Although not necessarily dangerous themselves, high levels of the bacteria can suggest an increased likelihood that meat may have pathogens that tests might miss.
From 2005 to this year, the AMS purchased six orders of ground beef that exceeded the limits some commercial buyers set for indicator bacteria. The meat came from five companies: Beef Packers of Fresno, which filled two of the orders; Skylark Meats of Omaha; Duerson Foods of Pleasant Prairie, Wis.; N'Genuity Enterprises of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Palo Duro Meat Processing of Amarillo, Texas.
Palo Duro is the largest provider of ground beef to schools. Beef Packers is one of the most troubled; it has been suspended as an AMS supplier three times, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., called this week for the plant to be closed temporarily in the wake of two recalls.
From late November 2008 through January this year, the AMS bought nearly 500,000 pounds of ground beef from Beef Packers and Skylark with unusually high levels of an indicator bacteria known as "generic E. coli." The organism is considered an indicator of whether potential contaminants from the intestines of cattle have gotten into slaughtered meat — a source of the far more dangerous E. coli O157:H7.
The indicator bacteria are measured in CFUs, or colony-forming units. Jack in the Box, which pioneered many of the safety standards now used across the fast-food industry, won't accept beef with generic E. coli levels of more than 100 CFUs per gram. The AMS, on the other hand, will buy beef for the school lunch program with generic E. coli counts of up to 1,000 CFUs per gram — 10 times the Jack in the Box limit.
"That's a significant difference," says Marsden, the professor and beef industry adviser.
The shipments of beef that the AMS bought a year ago had generic E. coli levels up to four times higher than what Jack in the Box would accept. "Most higher-end companies certainly would reject that," Marsden says. Those bacteria levels "would be a yellow light (that) something's not right."
E. coli isn't the only indicator bacteria that the AMS allows at higher levels. The government also accepts beef with more than double the limit set by many fast-food chains for total coliform, which is used to assess whether a beef producer is minimizing fecal contamination in its meat.
"We look at those (measures) to gauge how a supplier is doing," says David Theno, who developed the safety program at Jack in the Box before retiring last year. If shipments regularly exceed the company's limits on indicator bacteria, "we'd stop doing business with them," he says.
AMS officials say the differences between the agency's bacteria limits and those of private industry are inconsequential. They note that there isn't even a requirement that beef sold in a typical grocery store has to be tested for the organisms.
"We remain confident, based upon past benchmarking activities, that our testing and standards are similar to or exceed those of most major large volume buyers," AMS chief Pegg says.
The biggest disparity between the AMS and other big buyers of ground beef may not be in the levels of bacteria they allow but in the effort they make to detect such contamination.
On a given manufacturing day, AMS workers testing ground beef bound for schools sample the meat eight times, regardless of how long the production lines are running. Those samples are combined into a single composite sample for testing.
Jack in the Box, McDonald's, Burger King and other more selective buyers sample the ground beef on their production lines every 15 minutes. Some, such as Jack in the Box, combine those samples to create a composite sample for testing every hour during the production run. Others, such as McDonald's and Burger King, combine those samples to create a composite sample for testing every two hours.
That means Jack in the Box would test at least 10 composite samples during a typical 10-hour production run, which could yield 100,000 pounds or more of ground beef. The AMS would test just one sample for the entire 100,000-pound run.
The AMS approach to sampling "is not robust enough to find anything," says Mansour Samadpour, a Seattle-based food safety consultant and microbiologist.
Fast-food chains aren't the only ones with better sampling. Other beef buyers, such as Costco and afa Foods, a Pennsylvania firm that supplies beef to restaurants, use similar programs.
AMS officials say the agency accounts for less frequent sampling by being more aggressive in rejecting meat that fails to meet its standards. When a test shows salmonella, for instance, the AMS rejects all the meat produced by that supplier during that production run — tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds.
But the AMS approach doesn't resonate with some scientists.
"AMS is saying once they detect, they take drastic action," says Ewen Todd, a professor at Michigan State University, "but if they are less likely to detect, the risk is still higher."
Adds Theno: "If you do more sampling and you do it on smaller lots, you have a better chance of finding problems."
Theno helped pioneer the sampling and testing standards now used widely in the fast-food world after he arrived at Jack in the Box in the wake of the industry's most notorious safety lapse.
In 1993, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 at Jack in the Box restaurants left hundreds sick and four children dead. Victims, most from the West, won more than $50 million from the company and its suppliers. Reverberations from the event rippled across the fast-food industry.
In the aftermath, Theno says, Jack in the Box asked him to build a food safety program that would "set a new (industry) standard."
Today, most fast-food companies and premium grocery chains have safety programs built on the same pillars Theno set up at Jack in the Box: frequent sampling requirements, tight limits on indicator bacteria, and zero tolerance for dangerous pathogens.
Food safety officials from fast-food chains and other big beef buyers share ideas and information about their programs, says Dane Bernard, vice president for food safety at Keystone Foods, a ground beef supplier to McDonald's. "Our testing programs are constantly evolving. We watch the science closely."
Raising the bar
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.
That perception could be reinforced by the reality of how AMS makes its purchasing decision: Contracts go to the lowest qualified bidders. Orders are placed on a computer system that can be accessed by all of the agency's suppliers — those certified as able to meet the special sampling and testing requirements set for school lunch food. When an order is placed, suppliers enter bids into the system, and the computer automatically awards contracts to low bidders.
Industry experts say tougher standards would not significantly add to the agency's costs for school meat. Theno says the safety requirements set by Jack in the Box added less than a penny a pound to its beef costs. Other big buyers outside the school program say it's a worthwhile investment in safety.
"It's not about transactional cost; it's about value," says Justin Malvick, a vice president at Keystone, the McDonald's supplier.
Carpenter says the meat industry that he now represents would have no problem with a decision to modernize — and toughen — AMS standards for school lunch meat.
Most major beef suppliers and processors already have procedures in place to ensure that their products can satisfy the tougher sampling and testing requirements set by many commercial buyers, he adds. If the AMS followed, he says, "I don't think the industry would have any hiccup at all."
Some lawmakers say a change is overdue. "Why are we even looking at giving (schools) … food that wouldn't be accepted by a restaurant?," asks Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y. "That's absolutely crazy."
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise