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home->Campaigns->Safeguard our students -> News
SCHOOL LUNCHES; ILLNESS ON MENU
December 9, 2001
Pg. 1; ZONE: C
The outbreaks were swift and violent, and for hours afterward, the children
had headaches and stomach cramps. The hospital nurses who arrived at the
Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota found 1st graders
crouched in pain and vomiting two and three times in succession.
The story says that of the 469 youths sickened by their school lunch
burritos, 36 were treated at the local emergency room. Firefighters were
called in to hose down the playground.
More than a thousand miles away that day, elementary pupils in Upson County,
Ga., and Port Salerno, Fla., got sick after eating burritos packed in the
same squat brick plant on Chicago's South Side, run by RHSCO Enterprises
For four months in 1998, as the illness outbreaks were being linked to
RHSCO, the company shipped 80,000 frozen burritos a day to schools and other
institutions across the country.
In one of the most far-reaching school food outbreaks in the last decade,
more than 1,200 children in at least seven states were sickened.
But, the story says, even today, details of the case remain hidden from
public view, as does much of the rapidly changing, multibillion-dollar
industry that feeds America's schoolchildren.
In the sprawling school food industry's darkest precincts, frozen meals are
confected in grimy factories, meat is ground in contaminated packing houses
and half pints of milk are traded like poker chips, records and interviews
The issue is of special importance because food-borne pathogens that may
cause only mild indigestion in healthy adults can sicken and kill young
people, whose immune systems are still developing.
Part detective mystery and part gritty business primer, the story of the
tainted burritos touches on every facet of the school meal, from the factory
bins where raw flour is pumped to make tortillas to the distribution chain
that moves the frozen entrees to the child's cafeteria tray. Court and
government records expose glaring faults in the government regulatory
system, from the initial inspection to the issuing of a recall, and they
show how questionable operators can slide from one subcontract to another,
while school officials scramble to protect their students.
The number of school food outbreaks reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention rose by 56 percent in the eight years from 1990
through 1997, the most recent period for which complete national data are
Case reports gathered by the Tribune from health agencies in 10 large states
suggest the number of school outbreaks has continued to climb.
During the five years from 1990 through 1994, for example, Illinois
authorities reported only three school food outbreaks, in which 66 children
were sickened. But during the next six years, the average annual number of
school food outbreaks more than tripled, and the number of youths affected
increased tenfold, state records show.
The U.S. population of school-age children rose 9 percent during that
period, and government food safety agencies became more vigilant about
investigating and reporting outbreaks. But the large increase in school food
illnesses baffles epidemiologists and school officials.
Across the U.S., from 1990 through 1997, the number of outbreaks and
illnesses in the general population increased at a less rapid 36 percent,
CDC records show. And outbreaks were no more frequent in nursing homes,
prisons or other institutional settings, where, as in schools,
epidemiologists can easily track patients.
Court, corporate and government records reveal a fragile food safety system
struggling to cope with a rapidly changing marketplace.
Powerful distribution companies ship frozen school entrees quickly from
coast to coast, and private contractors put them on menus in several cities
at once, giving national reach to plants that produce unsafe meals. The
distributors draw frozen entrees from a netherworld of scantly inspected
subcontractors whose identities are rarely if ever disclosed to school
"I have to rely on the distributor, and I don't know that the distributors
know that much," said Mary Kate Harrison, food purchaser for the Tampa,
Fla.-area Hillsborough County school district, which was affected by four
recalls of contaminated food in 1998.
Plant inspections and illness outbreaks are handled by a complex tapestry of
federal, state and local food safety agencies that often do not share
critical information with one another, government case files show. The food
safety agencies rarely inform schools when they cite plants for serious
health violations or even when they temporarily shut down plants because
they are unsafe.
When the worst happens and school lunch suppliers send out contaminated
meals, the federal government's recall system offers a flimsy safeguard for
children. Industry-backed confidentiality rules block state and county
authorities from getting company shipping records so they can trace the food
to protect children from further harm.
"To assure that the recalled product is removed from circulation, it is
critical that state officials know its distribution," said Francis C. Okino,
chief of the Illinois Department of Public Health's Division of Food, Drugs
It's all heat and serve
Although America's food supply is considered among the world's safest, rapid
changes in the school meal industry have occasioned new health risks.
When Hillsborough County epidemiologist Elliott Gregos began tracking
central Florida outbreaks two decades ago, "schools were preparing most all
their food from scratch," Gregos said.
"Schools basically don't prepare anything anymore. It's all heat-and-serve,"
he said. "Everything comes frozen or canned."
Factory-frozen and "pre-plated" meals, manufactured to meet the portion
size, nutrition and cost requirements of school lunch contracts, have
allowed authorities to trim cafeteria jobs and streamline their food
budgets. But when harmful pathogens invade these modern food trays, they are
liable to affect more children, records and interviews show.
"The scope has changed," Gregos said.
Among the largest cases are the 400 Sacramento, Calif., children in six
schools who were poisoned by staphylococcus aureus in spaghetti in 1996, and
the 213 students at 23 Michigan schools who got sick in 1997 after eating
strawberries tainted with hepatitis A.
But the reported cases represent only a fraction of the actual total. Ill
people often do not seek medical care, health officials rarely collect food
specimens for diagnosis, and only some test results are communicated to
health officials. Though Americans experience an estimated 76 million
food-borne illnesses a year, fewer than one in 5,000 of those cases--only
15,000 a year--are reported in the CDC outbreak database.
Breakdowns riddle the government-run food safety systemm.
When U.S. government-donated hamburger tainted with the E.coli O157:H7
bacteria sickened 18 students in 1998 at Risen Christ Catholic School in
Minneapolis, the U.S. Agriculture Department could not trace the beef
because of record-keeping flaws in the complex distribution chain that
stretched from slaughterhouse to school. "USDA cannot positively say what
beef was used in the hot dish, and which plant it came from," an internal
Minnesota Health Department report said.
When Georgia-based supplier Zartic Inc. recalled 556,000 pounds of school
lunch hamburger in 1998 because a sample tested positive for listeria,
Zartic officials notified hundreds of distributors about the problem. But
Zartic had no idea which schools the distributors were serving--such records
are considered confidential, Zartic Chief Operating Officer Jack Harris
The names of some schools that served the hamburger surfaced in press
reports, and officials from Clayton, Ga., to Pittsburgh, said in interviews
with the Tribune that they received no notice of that recall.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, authorities are considering
several measures, such as adding more inspectors, to reform America's food
safety system and thwart a possible assault on the country's farm crops,
livestock feed supplies and production plants.
White House homeland security director Thomas J. Ridge has said the Bush
administration also is taking a fresh look at the idea of merging the
nation's fragmented network of 15 food safety agencies under one office, an
idea long advocated by U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-III.).
Under the current system, the lines of jurisdiction between federal agencies
are confounding, and investigators are often stymied when they try to track
meat, grain and produce as it winds through the production chain from farm
The story of the tainted school lunch burritos offers a wrenching lesson in
the shortcomings of the current system.
A grimy plastic window shields Oscar Munoz's headquarters from 47th Street.
A side door leads to a second-floor office with two secretaries and a
This is the command post of the school lunch subcontractor no school
official seemed to know about. As his company produced the white-flour
tortillas suspected in school lunch outbreaks, Munoz served as a hidden chef
to hundreds of thousands of young people, and an exemplar of a new American
Munoz declined to answer a reporter's questions. "When I want publicity,
pay for it," he said, with weary, onyx eyes.
Born in the central Mexican state of Jalisco, Munoz described himself in a
March court deposition as an uneducated man who lived above his tortilla
But in a notification filed with the Kankakee County assessor's office,
Munoz said he lived in a sprawling $550,000 house on a 12-acre, landscaped
parcel near the Indiana border. Ringed with a wrought-iron security fence,
that home features an indoor Olympic-size pool and two-story guard tower.
There, Munoz registers two Mercedes sports coupes. Munoz and his family own
some 800 acres of Kankakee County land and last year received more than
$28,000 in federal farm subsidies.
Using confidential land trusts and unregistered corporate names, Munoz
controls at least three Chicago apartment buildings, a dining hall, a meat
plant that was abandoned by its former owners, two taco restaurants, and a
now-shuttered grocery that was cited for sanitation violations and for
selling outdated baby food, according to land, court and city Health
In 1998, federal prosecutors filed a civil lawsuit to seize some $212,000 in
a bank account Munoz established, saying in court papers that authorities
had probable cause to believe the money was "derived from narcotics
Among the evidence was the testimony of an unnamed informant who told
authorities that he or she had watched as Munoz counted drug money stashed
in duffel bags in the basement of a Little Village restaurant, prosecutors
Munoz was not charged with any crime as a result of the investigation, and
he filed court papers saying he and his money had no connection to drug
dealing. He settled the forfeiture case by agreeing to let the government
keep $63,000--made up of cash deposits "structured to evade cash transaction
reporting requirements," federal prosecutors said--while releasing the other
$149,000 to Munoz.
Although Munoz wouldn't allow a reporter inside his 47th Street tortilla
plant, the factory was described in a 1999 Illinois Department of Public
Health inspection. Flies were everywhere, the state inspector wrote. Corn
spilled from broken bags onto the wet, broken floor. Toxic chemicals, sacks
of cement and cans of paint sat nearby. Bakery equipment had been patched
with cardboard, string and tape. The ceiling peeled, the basement reeked of
mold and the electrical cords hanging over the corn-grinding kettle were
covered with dust.
The white-flour tortillas suspected in the school illness outbreaks were
produced in a second Munoz plant, housed in an unmarked former electrical
equipment factory a half mile north, at 1850 W. 43rd St.
Inspections from 1996 and 1997 noted sanitation deficiencies there. But that
plant was not inspected by any food safety agency during the eight months in
1998 when it produced the tortillas linked to the outbreaks.
At the school lunch plant, called Munoz Flour Tortilleria, Inc., tanker
trucks bearing flour from North Dakota eased into the loading dock, court,
corporate and government reports show. Pneumatic tubes pumped the flour into
200,000-pound rectangular storage bins before the tortilla ingredients were
fed into hoppers where the dough was formed, sliced and pushed through holes
in revolving plates. Dough balls sluiced down stainless steel canals to
cabinets where they were left to rise. Pressed doily-thin in 8-inch discs,
tortillas flopped through a three-tiered revolving oven.
Munoz entered the school lunch business at a propitious time. During the
1990s, a series of 43 recalls of contaminated, adulterated and misbranded
hot dogs sent safety-conscious school food directors hustling to find a safe
alternative--another hand-held entree that would appeal to kids.
Taco Bell Corp. launched its first frozen burrito line for schools in 1996,
and within a year it was supplying nearly 15,000 schools across the country.
But the frozen school lunch burrito, which combines a variety of ingredients
gathered from several sources, can pose its own safety problems. In 1997,
burritos from Estrada Foods of Colorado were linked to more than 300 school
illnesses in three states, federal food safety records show.
In January 1998, Munoz teamed up with food industry up-and-comer Robert
Hicks and his RHSCO plant, which was selling $8 million of frozen Mexican
entrees a year to schools, prisons and supermarkets, court records and
inspection reports show.
The first outbreak came about four months later. In May 1998, 11 South Bend,
Ind., children were sickened. Then nine in Philadelphia.
When federal agencies released records to the Tribune under the Freedom of
Information Act, they followed industry-driven guidelines and deleted
portions that would show where the outbreaks occurred, how many children
were affected and who the food's distributors and subcontractors were.
The Tribune's account was drawn from the files of 20 local health and food
By August 1998, the incidents began to gather momentum, those records show.
That month, outbreaks roiled 66 Tampa-area schools, sickening 651 children.
In September, 81 students were sickened at five schools in and around the
agricultural town of Immokalee, Fla.
Ten days later, five girls held in the Kansas City, Kan., juvenile detention
center got sick after eating RHSCO "Correct Choice" correctional services
Four days after that, 30 children at the Lincoln and Denkmann Schools in
Rock Island, Ill., experienced cramps, vomiting or headaches after eating
the food, Illinois Department of Public Health records show. "It was
frightening--beyond any experience I had ever seen," said Carol Longley,
director of food service for the Rock Island school district.
Simultaneous outbreaks at Turtle Mountain and in Florida and Georgia
followed in six days.
A day later, on Sept. 17, a half dozen 3rd graders at the Hamilton Crossing,
Ga., elementary school got sick about an hour after eating RHSCO burritos.
At some point between May and September, at least one outbreak also occurred
in Iowa, court and government health agency records indicate. RHSCO attorney
Lloyd said in an interview that Hicks did not take immediate steps to halt
shipments or recall the burritos because none of the initial reports of
illness received by the company offered conclusive evidence that RHSCO's
frozen entrees--and not some other food--made the children sick.
It was not until Sept. 18, after more than a thousand children had been
sickened, that the Agriculture Department requested that Hicks recall the
"Instead of pointing fingers, RHSCO started recalling product," Lloyd
"These are not people who shirk their responsibilities."
In theory, recall works
Agriculture Department rules are designed to help companies remove tainted
food from commerce as quickly as possible. But federal law does not allow
department officials to force plants to recall food.
The company and its government monitors work, in theory, as a closely
Agriculture Department agents gather company distribution records to ensure
that potentially dangerous food is identified and returned. Department
investigators interview people who got sick, collect and analyze food
samples and notify local and state health departments of the problem.
Department field personnel, who have access to internal company distribution
lists, then conduct "effectiveness checks" to make sure the firm made every
reasonable effort to locate, retrieve and dispose of the product.
But in practice, as RHSCO's case shows, this carefully woven safety net can
function like a sieve.
The Agriculture Department did not learn how many pounds of burritos RHSCO
had shipped to its school lunch customers until five days after the recall,
case files show. A week later, department officials learned the burritos had
been sold to the general public, not just schools and institutions, and
belatedly issued a press release warning people not to eat them.
In hastily arranged conference calls, government epidemiologists said they
suspected children were sickened by the tortillas used to wrap the burritos,
not the meat and bean fillings, internal government case records show. "USDA
feels that early information points to the tortilla as being responsible,"
Florida Department of Health epidemiologist Michael Friedman wrote in a
Sept. 21 e-mail to colleagues.
But Agriculture Department officials allowed schools to keep serving the
tortilla shells, which came from Munoz's factory.
Three weeks after the recall, Hillsborough County, Fla., school cooks used
the tortillas to wrap their own burritos. Outbreaks in eight schools there
sickened 58 children.
In internal memos to their superiors, Agriculture Department officials
downplayed the extent of the burrito illness outbreaks. Despite knowing of
the massive Florida and North Dakota cases, the department Recall
Committee's summary report said that only "several children" were ill; an
Oct. 2 report to the undersecretary for food safety cited just the cases in
Kansas and Georgia.
Hicks did not know exactly which schools had received RHSCO food, because
that information was not disclosed to him by his roughly 200 distributors.
To ensure that everyone who bought the burritos was notified of the recall,
Agriculture Department field personnel conducted 286 "effectiveness checks"
of schools, nursing homes and other institutions. A department report said
no problems had been found.
It was impossible to verify that claim because department recall records
released under the Freedom of Information Act were heavily blacked out, in
accordance with industry-backed laws that protect the confidentiality of
food distribution records.
But in Illinois, where the Tribune obtained effectiveness check records that
were not blacked out, 14 of the 31 institutions that received the burritos
were not informed of the recall by RHSCO's distributors. Another 10 were
notified up to 10 days later.
Ten days after the recall, a team of investigators from the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration visited RHSCO's burrito plant, seeking information on
the plant's operations and suppliers.
Internal RHSCO records suggested the company's burritos may not have been
properly frozen before leaving the factory, the FDA team reported. Hicks
said those records were "only an indicator" and shipping documents could
clarify the issue, the report said. "When we asked him for actual shipping
records, he refused." RHSCO attorney Kurt Lloyd said Hicks couldn't give the
records to the FDA because the USDA had them.
On Oct. 5, Hicks faxed federal officials a memo saying he was "totally
disgusted" with the way the recall had been handled.
"I have got to ask the million dollar question, WHO IS IN CHARGE?" he wrote.
Sifting through garbage
The investigation that led government scientists to Chicago's South Side was
a classic example of shoe leather epidemiology.
In Turtle Mountain, investigators from the CDC and North Dakota agencies
spent two days sifting layers of garbage in a 26-foot deep pit at a local
landfill to recover a cache of half-eaten school lunch burritos. Many were
still in their Styrofoam containers, records show.
But none of those samples--or any other sample recovered from cafeteria
trash cans and school freezers around the country--tested positive for a
Government epidemiologists built a computer matrix listing the ingredients
in the food the ill students ate. The fact that students continued to get
sick when school cooks used only the white flour tortillas shipped by RHSCO
"suggest[s] that the etiologic agent was in the tortillas," a CDC report
"There were no other common ingredients identified in the burritos
implicated in all of these outbreaks," Gregos, the Hillsborough County,
Fla., epidemiologist, wrote in his report. "It is therefore reasonable to
conclude that it was some component or contaminant in the tortillas which
was responsible for this outbreak."
To determine if there was a problem with the tortillas, investigators from
the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC and the Illinois Department of
Public Health arrived at Munoz's 43rd Street flour tortilla factory days
after the recall. A helpful employee showed them around the plant, which
appeared clean. They tested samples of food and found no pathogens.
In their report, FDA inspectors noted small problems: Cleaning compounds,
liquid pesticide and bulk lemon extract were improperly stored in a common
area with tortilla ingredients. They came across 20 five-gallon containers
of a Mexican-made "anti-adherent" solution that should not come into contact
with foods. Munoz told inspectors it was simply being stored there and
wasn't used in preparing the tortillas.
In the summer of 1999, state health inspectors returned to Munoz's 43rd
Street tortilla plant to find Munoz was using numerous chemicals and
preservatives not declared on the tortilla labels. There were flies in the
warehouse and production area. The air in the employee lunch room was
"smelly" and difficult to breathe.
The plant was not inspected for at least two years after that.
Hicks and Munoz severed ties, and two months after the outbreak, Hicks'
company sued Munoz's over the multimillion-dollar costs of the burrito
Hicks said in court papers that his onetime subcontractor produced tortillas
that were "unsafe for human consumption."
Lawyers for Munoz's company responded that the tortillas were tested several
times by government agencies and never proved unsafe, and claimed that RHSCO
failed to properly store the shells. RHSCO's attorney said Munoz could
provide no evidence that he had cleaned the bins that stored his flour,
which could have contracted a harmful mold.
In a March deposition for that lawsuit, Munoz said Hicks talked to him a few
times about the illnesses. "I knew that the kids will eat burritos and they
vomit, but I did not know that they were from Munoz flour," Munoz said
through a court interpreter.
Munoz offered his view of the incidents: "The kids vomit, but they didn't
Bad record no barrier
Even without Hicks, Munoz and the RHSCO plant were not done with school
Munoz began supplying tortillas to companies owned by school food veterans
Jorge and Lisandra Reynoso, and he lent them at least $189,000, Cook County
land records and interviews show.
A company controlled in part by the Reynosos eventually bought the old RHSCO
plant at 636 W. Root St. for $1.3 million in 1999. The couple already had a
plant on Blue Island Avenue that shipped some 60,000 burritos per day to
schools in five states.
The Reynosos' burrito business illustrates how a contractor with a record of
unsanitary practices can produce food from a factory that is unseen by
school officials and unmonitored by the multistate companies that manage
increasing numbers of American school cafeterias.
On their invoices and letterhead, the Reynosos used corporate names
including Que Tal? Inc., a company that actually had been dissolved since
1996, and La Morenita. They ascended in the school lunch industry by
partnering with the multibillion-dollar private contractors that run school
cafeterias around the U.S.
The two biggest, subsidiaries of Sodexho Alliance and Compass Group PLC,
currently hold contracts worth $55 million to manage Chicago cafeterias.
But in Chicago, as around the country, neither company reads the inspection
reports of government food safety agencies that monitor their suppliers, and
nothing in their contracts says they should, company officials said. And so
it is not surprising that no one in charge of children's safety noticed the
litany of citations at the Reynosos' Blue Island Avenue school lunch plant.
Last year, a city Building Department inspection cited the plant for 56 code
violations, including rat infestation, junk, filth and peeling paint inside
Federal inspectors visited the plant for about a half hour a day, Jorge
Reynoso said. That October, an Agriculture Department inspector ordered the
destruction of 19 60-pound boxes of smelly, off-color meat. In December
2000, a city inspection noted "a large pool" of raw sewage spilled on the
basement floor from a rusted pipe.
That month, federal inspectors condemned 480 pounds of green-gray,
sour-smelling meat that spilled from blood-soaked boxes; 300 additional
pounds of dirt-streaked beef; and five open boxes of school lunch sandwiches
that were stored beneath a dripping fan.
Five days before Christmas, a federal inspector noted rust in the bean
cooker and a black greasy substance dripping from an exhaust fan onto the
tamale cooker. A "strong odor was present." There was mold and hanging caulk
on the cook room ceiling and the freezer floor was "black with ice, dirt and
The next day, La Morenita's license was suspended for five days by Chicago
health inspector Franklin Jenkins. Then the plant resumed production.
When the Agriculture Department finally forced La Morenita to stop packing
burritos on Dec. 29, the company's food remained in circulation through
warehouses that had stored the food in freezers for distribution to schools.
Three times during January 2001, the Agriculture Department detained a total
of 10,170 pounds of adulterated and mislabeled food linked to La Morenita,
None of these enforcement actions were communicated to Chicago school
officials by Sodexho or Compass, the private companies that served La
Morenita food to the city's children.
In late January, a sample of burritos destined for the Chicago schools
tested positive for the potentially deadly listeria bacteria. It took 13
days before the U.S. Agriculture Department confirmed the presence of the
bacteria, and another three days before department officials forced the
Reynosos to announce a recall of the tainted school burritos on Jan. 26,
records and interviews show.
Agriculture officials never determined how much food was infected with
listeria because of "inadequate record keeping by the firm," a USDA memo
said. Distributors who held hundreds of cases were not notified of the
For a few months this year, the Reynosos stopped selling burritos to school
But, through the Root Street plant, they got another chance. Using a new
corporate name, they lobbied Chicago school officials to help them become a
In April, Chicago school food service director Sue Susanke wrote a short
letter to Sodexho saying a Reynoso company's foods may "once again be menued
for use in the Chicago Public Schools."
This fall, the company resumed feeding Chicago students through a Sodexho
subcontract. Sodexho spokeswoman Jeanette Jurkiewicz said her company was
unaware that the Reynosos had any problem at the Blue Island plant. "To our
knowledge, they had no prior record of food safety incidents," Jurkiewicz
"They are under no obligation to notify any of the parties they supply
product to" of the government enforcement actions, said Linda Galarti,
Quality Assurance director for Compass, which no longer uses companies
linked to the Reynosos.
Her brown hair shrouded in a sanitary net, Lisandra Reynoso insisted in an
interview that her school food entrees have always been safe and wholesome.
The real problem, Reynoso said, is America's strict food safety laws.
"The more we battle these so-called pathogens, the more problems we're
creating," she said.
She let the smoke of her cigarette curl against the window of her office,
obscuring a view of Chicago's Stockyard district bungalows and a shuttered
fish packing plant.
"Our immune systems here are in pathetic shape," Reynoso said. "We're
able to deal with elevated levels of bacteria that people in other parts of
the world can deal with because we are in such a sterile environment," she
"I think we're harming ourselves and our children by weakening ourselves."
MEAT FROM TROUBLED PLANTS SOLD TO U.S. LUNCH PROGRAM
December 9, 2001
Pg. 17; ZONE: C
SERIES: TRIBUNE INVESTIGATION. SCHOOL FOOD SAFETY.
David Jackson and Geoff Dougherty.
The cattle were herded into the grease-slicked east Texas slaughterhouse,
then the cuts of beef were trucked to a germ-ridden grinding plant.
Even as safety citations piled up at those plants in 1999, their owner
remained one of the top hamburger suppliers to the National School Lunch
Program, which provides roughly 15 percent of the food American students
eat. That year, as Supreme Beef Processor's grinding plant and sister
slaughterhouse each failed three consecutive rounds of tests for the
salmonella bacteria, the company sold $23 million in meat to schools through
the federal program.
Supreme presents the cardinal story of a troubled U.S. program. To procure
the roughly 300 million pounds of frozen beef it provides to schools each
year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture buys meat from plants that violate
critical food safety rules and have undergone recalls of bacteria-contaminated meat,
government records show.
Plants that sell frozen beef to the National School Lunch Program violated
food safety rules at rates higher than the industry as a whole, a Tribune
computer analysis of U.S. Agriculture Department data shows.
Over the past five years, the USDA used two inspection systems to collect
data on meat plants, and the two systems yielded different violation rates.
In one, which phased out between 1998 and 1999, school-lunch plants had
violation rates 25 percent higher than the plants overall. Under that
system, the school-lunch plants accrued violations in 2.03 percent of the
459,000 times they were inspected. In plants that did not sell to the
federal lunch program, the violation rate was 1.63 percent.
In the other system, which is newer but contains information on far fewer
inspections, school-lunch plants had violation rates 7 percent higher than
plants overall. That number, however, could understate the problem at
school-lunch plants because records for two plants--including a large one
with a history of violations and recalls--could not be included.
"We've seen improvements in our food safety system and inspection systems,"
Agriculture Department spokesman Kevin Herglotz said. "It's moving in the
right direction [and] we need to continue to make sure we're using the best
available science and strengthening the program."
Food safety experts say higher violation rates are cause for concern,
although they do not necessarily indicate that a group of plants is
producing contaminated food. That's because some violations deal with
record-keeping problems and other difficulties.
One of the plants with repeated violations, Bauer Meat Co. of Ocala, Fla.,
underwent a massive recall while Bauer and its distributing company sold
$38.7 million to the program. In November, a Bauer employee was sentenced to
36 months' probation on a graft charge related to the company's school
contracts, federal records show.
After some 38,000 pounds of E.coli-tainted Bauer hamburger sent to Florida
and Georgia schools hospitalized a 5th-grade boy and sickened several other
children in 1998, the Agriculture Department inspector general found Bauer
employees shipped hundreds of products up to two years old to schools. The
company is now shuttered.
The meat plant recalls and safety violations reveal the conflicting missions
of the National School Lunch Program, which was launched in 1946 to bolster
American agricultural markets, as well as to give students nutritious meals.
When prices drop because of a food surplus, the USDA uses the $650 million
designated for school commodities to buy up the surplus.
The USDA has been criticized for dumping high-fat products into schools,
compromising the health of children to support the politically potent farm
The inspection records raise new questions about the department's ability to
simultaneously shop the market for inexpensive food and police it for the
presence of pathogens that are especially dangerous to children.
When the Agriculture Department moved to shut down Supreme's processing
plant at the end of 1999, the company filed a federal lawsuit saying the
department's salmonella testing standard was based on flimsy science and
questionable law. Many scientists agree with that assessment, and so did the
federal judge who heard the case. The judge ordered the Agriculture
Department to keep its inspectors at the plant, and Supreme kept supplying
the federal school lunch program until the processing plant failed an
unprecedented fourth round of salmonella tests in June 2000.
The Supreme case continues to reverberate through the industry and shape the
government's effort to make sure school meals are safe.
As the Agriculture Department appeals the court decision, the government has
in several cases negotiated with beef producers that subsequently failed
three rounds of salmonella tests, rather than attempting to shut them down,
industry officials said.
Embarrassed by Supreme's continued involvement in the school lunch program,
the Clinton administration last year instituted a "zero tolerance" standard
for salmonella in school purchases.
The department has rejected a growing amount of school lunch ground beef
because it fails bacteria tests. As of October, it had rejected 12 percent
of the 34 million pounds of ground beef it had purchased, up from 7 percent
last year. That meat can be resold on the commercial market, where there is
no zero tolerance standard, sometimes directly to schools, industry
This spring, Agriculture Department officials proposed replacing the tough
salmonella testing standard at the heart of the Supreme Beef case. In its
place, department officials said they would sample for several other
"indicator organisms," and consider allowing plants to irradiate school
lunch meat, reversing a previous ban.
In the political brushfire that followed, Agriculture Secretary Ann M.
Veneman quickly withdrew the proposed regulation and restored the salmonella