Beef could soon return to lunch menu

Schools could find out as soon as today whether beef is allowed back on student lunch menus following a national scare in which beef from cows linked to mad-cow disease could have entered the food supply.

The California Department of Education recommended Jan. 30 that schools avoid using all beef products from the Westland Meat Company after investigators from the U.S. Department ofAgriculture found that employees in a Westland slaughterhouse mistreated so-called “downer” cows, which are too sick to walk.

Although the USDA had no evidence that the cows — thought to be a potential source of mad cow disease — had entered the food supply, it and the CDE recommended the hold until investigators could rule out any contamination, said Phyllis Bramson-Paul, director of the nutrition services division of the CDE. “We should know a lot more [today].”

San Mateo County Office of Education leaders said they had no way of knowing how many local districts heeded the hold, but many districts individually removed all beef off menus, even products that didn’t come from Westland.

“Our nutrition director went through our products and found eight [packages] from Westland’s distributors,” said Joan Rosas, spokeswoman for the San Mateo-Foster City School District. “But she decided to put no beef on the menu until she heard clearance from the government.”

The Redwood City School District also removed all beef from school menus, substituting ground chicken for ground beef and making other lunchtime substitutions, said Raul Parungao, chief business official for the district.

Linda Carrozzi, director of nutrition services for the South San Francisco Unified School District, rejiggered menus in ways such as offering cheese pizza instead of pepperoni.

“Even though the word is Westland only, we like to make sure our kids are safe,” Parungao said.

By contrast, the San Francisco Unified School District kept beef on menus because its supplier, Preferred Meal Systems, knew for certain that its products did not come from Westland, said Dana Woldow, co-chair of the district’s nutrition and physical activity committee.

Although USDA investigators will release Westland findings today at the earliest, a Friday news conference offered some signs of hope.

“To date, there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations that downer cattle entered the food supply,” said Kenneth Peterson, assistant administrator in the Office of Field Operations at the USDA, at a news conference last Friday.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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