December 15, 2009

With Safety Standards At Fast Food Chains Surpassing School Meals, Gillibrand Urges Usda To Enforce Tougher Meat Testing Requirements

Also Calls on Feds to Cut Ties with Dirty Vendors, Repeat Violators

Washington, DC - With safety standards at fast food restaurants surpassing testing measures for school meals, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the first New York Senator to sit on the Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years, is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enforce tougher testing requirements and higher benchmarks for the 100 million plus pounds of beef served in school cafeterias each year. Senator Gillibrand also urged the USDA to cut off contracts with vendors that are repeat offenders after a major supplier to the National School Lunch Program, Beef Packers, Inc., recalled their beef for the second time in less than year.

In her letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Senator Gillibrand wrote, "[Beef Packers, Inc.] clearly had problems keeping their meat clean for years, yet they were allowed to supply meat to the school lunch program.  I applaud your undertaking an internal review of your meat purchasing policy, but in the meantime, I urge you to take immediate action to terminate contracts with any habitual violators of your food safety policies... I also urge the USDA to implement a strict testing program in order to test every single batch of beef that is destined for the school lunch program... Our children deserve a testing program as least as good as the fast food chains." 

Fast food chains test the beef they buy up to 10 times more often than the USDA tests school cafeteria meat, according to a recent report from USA Today. Since 2005, at least six orders of ground beef for schools fell short of the stricter standards that some commercial buyers define for high levels of bacteria. According to the study, fast food restaurants would have rejected purchased meat for the school lunch program that tested positive for high levels of "generic E. coli," including nearly 500,000 pounds of ground beef from Beef Packers, Inc. and Skylark Meats, Inc. between November 2008 to January 2009. Generic E. coli is an indicator bacteria which shows that meat has been tainted with fecal material.

Earlier this month, Beef Packers, Inc. recalled over 22,000 pounds of ground beef contaminated with salmonella Newport bacteria - their second recall this year. This past August, the meat plant recalled nearly 826,000 pounds of beef.

Full letter below:

December 14, 2009

The Honorable Tom Vilsack
Secretary
Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., S.W.

Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

I write out of my strong concern for the health and safety of America's school children.  I have read with dismay that Beef Packers, Inc. has had to recall tens of thousands of pounds of beef because of another recall this year.  This company clearly had problems keeping their meat clean for years, yet they were allowed to supply meat to the school lunch program.

I applaud your undertaking an internal review of your meat purchasing policy, but in the meantime, I urge you to take immediate action to terminate contracts with any habitual violators of your food safety policies. I introduced a bill earlier this year that defined a habitual violator as a company with three consecutive days or ten instances a year of meat that tests positive for contaminants - a very generous definition for which Beef Packers clearly violates.

It is extremely fortunate that no children were sickened by the products that Beef Packers sent to schools.  However, at this point we do not know if that is because the raw product was truly free of contamination or if the school cafeteria chefs followed proper handling and cooking procedures.  The testing procedures are not in place to make that determination.

Therefore, I also urge the USDA to implement a strict testing program in order to test every single batch of beef that is destined for the school lunch program.  It is simply not adequate to rely on the visual inspections of inspectors at meat packing facilities.  I also strongly encourage you to adopt the testing program and higher standards for batch rejection used by industry leaders such as Jack in the Box and Costco.  Our children deserve a testing program as least as good as the fast food chains.

I appreciate your attention to this issue and would appreciate a prompt response regarding my three suggestions.

Sincerely,

Kirsten Gillibrand
United States Senator