Parents were alarmed to read on September 20, 2013, that more than 58,000, pounds of ground beef intended for school lunches were recalled because they were contaminated with plastic pieces. The recall was announced late on September 19 by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The beef was purchased by the federal government from the Central Valley Meat Company in Hanford, California, for distribution to schools in Arkansas, California, Montana, and Texas. Recalled packages of beef bear the markings "Est. 6063A," "6063A3091A," and / or "6063A3091B."
The National School Lunch Program, established in 1946, provides "assistance to the States in the establishment, maintenance, operation, and expansion of school lunch programs," with most participating schools receiving cash reimbursements. However, some schools receive actual food in the form of government surplus products. In the Bethlehem Area School District, food service is provided by Sodexho Education, managed by Andrew Chandler. BASD Dining Services has confirmed that the district does not use fresh or frozen raw ground beef; rather, pre-cooked beef products are purchased.
When a school district (or its designated contractor) purchases food, it must choose vendors that comply with federal standards. For ground beef in particular, standards have been the subject of very specific regulations that have recently undergone some changes, including the removal of the requirement to test for Staphylococcus aureus ("staph") infections in the beef. The groups involved in setting these policies include the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the Food Nutrition Service (FNS), the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), and the Farm Service Agency (FSA). Somehow, however, the Contractor Monitoring Program did not prevent the Central Valley Meat Company -- shut down for a week only one year ago for inhumane and possibly dangerous conditions -- from being selected as a contractor to provide meat to school children.
Pennsylvania parents may breathe a sigh of relief over the fact that the Central Valley Meat Company does not provide meat for their children, but it is unclear how safe school food really is. For example, schools are required by FNS to obtain two school food safety inspections per year. However, according to FNS data, 171 schools in Pennsylvania had zero inspections during 2011-2012 (the most recent academic year for which data is available online), 235 had only one inspection, and 18 did not submit a report, and 54 had three or more inspections (which might prompt one to imagine that follow-up inspections were necessary after violations were uncovered). That leaves only 3,292, out of 3,770, schools -- roughly 87% -- that conformed to federal regulations for school safety inspections. Concerned parents may wish to sign up for food commodity recalls and / or to contact their local school district to inquire whether their child's school is compliant with on-site inspection requirements.