Was UDSA asleep on tainted beef?

One-third of San Mateo County’s 24 school districts were on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nationwide list of schools believed to have received some portion of the 143 million pounds of potentially tainted beef recalled Feb. 17 from the Southern California slaughterhouse where U.S. Humane Society undercover video revealed workers using electric prods, high-pressure water hoses and forklifts to force sick or crippled”downer” cows to get up and move to the killing floor.

Some of the $37 million worth of ground meat from the largest beef recall in U.S. history went to Peninsula elementary school districts in Burlingame, Millbrae, Redwood City and San Bruno; to the San Mateo and Sequoia union high school districts; and to K-12 districts in South San Francisco and Pacifica.

However, the USDA list covers two years of shipments to the National School Lunch Program. So it remains unknown how much of the suspect beef was shipped to local school districts, how recently any might have arrived, which specific schools received some — and if any lunchroom hamburgers came from abused cows too sick to stand.

Fortunately, no illnesses have yet been linked to the meat. Peninsula schools acted immediately to remove beef from the menu as soon as word of an imminent recall emerged. So it is likely that San Mateo County students escaped this particular threat.

Redwood City Elementary School District removed their beef on the day the recall was announced, destroying two cases of meat worth approximately $200. San Mateo Union High School District officials heard rumors of a pending recall and took away beef even before the official announcement. Sequoia Union High School District checked its inventory and did not find any suspicious beef.

Sustained congressional pressure forced the USDA to release the first public list of every U.S. school district affected by the recall. Federal lawmakers also continue to insist that the USDA should release a complete list of all retail stores receiving the recalled beef.

The USDA is already allowing schools to begin serving beef again; hamburgers, chili and spaghetti with meat sauce are returning to the lunch lines this month. This comes as a relief to the many San Mateo County students who sadly missed their standard dishes. Local school district food-service directors saw one positive side-effect from the recall: The lunchrooms were able to test new recipes and find a few more items the students were willing to eat, such as Chinese chicken egg rolls or a breakfast egg patty sandwich.

Yet we wonder why it required an undercover Humane Society video camera to show very sick animals that were illegally slaughtered and put into America’s food supply, posing a serious health risk to humans. Aren’t federal food inspectors supposed to be preventing exactly this from happening?

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