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by Debbie Lehmann, the editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.

I’ve been feeling relatively optimistic about the USDA commodity program lately. Offerings are heavy on the meat and the cheese, but they have gotten much healthier over the years. When it comes to providing nutritious food, it seems like cafeterias face larger obstacles, such as maintaining student participation and keeping within tight budgets.

Well, at least that’s what I thought until this weekend. Now, after reading The New York TimesҠterrifying report about the ground beef inspection system, I am convinced that the commodity program has a critical role to play in changing the school food status quo.

The Times article — a scathing indictment of both the meat processing system and our food safety system — traced the meat from a hamburger that sickened 22-year-old Stephanie Smith and left her paralyzed for life. The ground beef was produced by Cargill under the label “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties,” and it was contaminated with a virulent strain of E. coli.

A number of sickening flaws in the meat processing system led to the E. coli in Stephanie Smith’s hamburger. Notably, the meat in Cargill’s patties was “a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.” The Times goes on:

Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows. Yet Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. The United States Department of Agriculture, which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination.


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