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Tainted Beef Fears Bump Burgers Off School Menus

Times Staff Writer

Pizza, chicken and other substitutes will be replacing hamburgers on some school lunch menus in California and other states because of fears that ground beef supplied under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Donated Food Program may be contaminated with a cancer-causing pesticide.

Officials stressed that there have been no reports of illness caused by meat tainted with heptachlor, a pesticide used widely on feed grains until it was banned as a carcinogen in 1978. Samples of school lunch beef from the five meatpackers who may have processed tainted beef have yet to show heptachlor contamination.

But USDA officials said Wednesday that they had issued a “precautionary hold” on ground beef from the five meatpackers last week, after investigators reported that tainted grain was fed to livestock in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma and tests showed that at least 12 beef cows from the area showed signs of heptachlor contamination from eating the grain.

Action in Orange County

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In Orange County, at least 10 school districts producing school lunches pulled the federally supplied beef from their menus.

Four of those districts now are serving no beef. The other six are serving only beef supplied by private distributors.

“We’re having a meatless week . . . to reassure parents,” said Jacque Kravitz, operations supervisor for Newport-Mesa’s food services department.

Officials in 11 of the other county school districts said Wednesday that they did not have the questionable beef in stock.

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L.A. District Not Affected

The Los Angeles Unified School District--largest in the state--was not affected by the hold because it did not receive beef from the five meatpackers. Neither were a number of other districts throughout the state.

“Our beef was checked out and it was not one of the lot numbers that might be contaminated,” said Shel Erlich, a spokesman for the Los Angeles district.

Steve Delano, a state Department of Education spokesman in Sacramento, said Wednesday that only three of the five packers ship beef to California’s public and private schools--accounting for about 25% to 40% of the 10 to 12 million pounds of ground beef supplied annually under the USDA program.

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Wide Variety of Packers

Delano said most districts are getting ground beef from a wide variety of packers so, at worst, they are simply getting less ground beef than usual.

“The schools are adjusting their menus to allow for it,” Delano said. “They’ll still put a protein item on the menu. Maybe chicken. Maybe turkey. Maybe pizza.”

Nancy Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, said Wednesday that the heptachlor has been traced back to some feed-- milo seed--a byproduct of a gasohol distillation plant in Arkansas.

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“A Food and Drug Administration inspector was checking feed mills in the area for toxic mold, and he noted that the seed had a pinkish color,” Robinson said. “That color meant that seed had been treated with something. The FDA found out it was heptachlor.”

Heptachlor began turning up in milk and milk products in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, indicating that the contaminated seed had been fed to dairy herds there.

Sampling Program Begun

“The USDA initiated a sampling program at slaughterhouses there and in Kansas,” Robinson said. “Out of 376 animals, 12 tested positive. That told us we had heptachlor in animals. We found out that five school lunch contractors had received raw products or live animals from the affected area.”

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Robinson said 350 samples were taken from the five contracting meatpackers--Service Packing Co. of Los Angeles and Laredo Packing Co., H & H Meat Products Co., Supreme Beef Processors and Leonard & Harral Packing Co., all of Texas.

“Of the 50 samples on which tests are completed to date, all are negative,” Robinson said.

“These data confirm our belief that there appears to be no widespread problem with heptachlor contamination of the meat supply,” said Donald Houston, administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service in Washington.

While the five packers distribute their products widely throughout the Southwest and to some Eastern states, including Pennsylvania, only Service Packing, Leonard & Harral and Supreme Beef shipped ground beef to schools in California under the USDA school lunch program, according to Delano.

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Times staff writer Marie Montgomery contributed to this story.


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