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School systems says 'kids are safe' despite meat recall

By Curt Yeomans

The deep freeze is over for more than 1,000 cases of ground beef, which came to the Clayton County School System from a Calif.-based meat company under federal investigation for using "downer cows."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a recall for 143 million pounds of the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company's meat - the largest meat recall in the agency's history - on Sunday. The use of downer cows, or non-ambulatory cattle, meant there was a risk of exposing consumers to diseases such as E. coli, salmonella and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), also known as "Mad Cow Disease."

In January, the school system received 1,150 cases, containing a total of 69,000 pounds, of ground beef from the company. The meat was placed on administrative hold at the district's maintenance facility in Jonesboro, before it could be sent to schools.

The Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company was a supplier for the USDA's National School Lunch program. Clayton County school officials are urging parents to remain calm.

"The kids are safe," said district spokesman Charles White. "The meat never went out to any of our schools."

White also said the school system's nutrition department will immediately begin following the USDA's recommendations for getting rid of the meat "to the T." Clayton County was one of 37 school districts in Georgia who purchased meat from the company, the Georgia Department of Education announced on Monday.

The statement also said school systems must report to the state's School Nutrition division once the meat has been destroyed. The USDA will reimburse districts for the cost of destroying the meat as long as the agency's protocols are strictly followed. The USDA has not said whether school systems will be reimbursed for the cost of the food, according to the Department of Education.

According to USDA protocols, the Clayton County school system has to either take the meat to a landfill, send it to health officials for "inedible rendering," or have it incinerated at an off-site facility which is not owned by the district.

The Department of Education has received no reports of meat-related illnesses from the 37 school systems affected by the recall.

Ed Schafer, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, released his own statement concerning the meat on Sunday. In his statement, Schafer said his agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service found the company's cattle were "unfit for human food."

Downer cows are forbidden from being used for meat because the risk of BSE. There are a number of safeguards implemented by the USDA to prevent meat from being contaminated by BSE, E. coli or salmonella.

The prohibition against using downer cows is one of those safeguards. A cow is supposed to be inspected by USDA inspectors ante-mortem, or before death, on the day it is scheduled to be slaughtered. If the cow becomes non-ambulatory, meaning it can't walk anymore, after the inspection is completed, a public health veterinarian is supposed to check the cow out before it is slaughtered.

Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company did not consistently follow the final part of that procedure, according to Schafer.

"I am dismayed at the in-humane handling of cattle that has resulted in the violation of food safety regulations at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company," Schafer said. "It is extremely unlikely that these animals were at risk for BSE because of the multiple safeguards. However, this action is necessary because plant procedures violated USDA regulations."

Debbie Haston-Hilger, a Georgia-based spokesperson for the USDA, could not be reached for comment on Monday.