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Probe sought of school meat supply

Times Staff Writer

A California congressman and other lawmakers called Thursday for an independent investigation into the safety of food supplied to schools across the nation through a federal program. The action comes in response to allegations that at-risk cattle were slaughtered at one of the school nutrition program’s top suppliers.

In a letter to the Government Accountability Office, California Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) and three other Democratic lawmakers said a video released by the Humane Society of the United States raised “urgent concerns” about the safety of food supplied to schools through the Agriculture Department.

Steps taken by the department after the video’s release “leave unanswered a larger question about the overall effectiveness of the federal government’s effort to ensure the safety of meat in the school food supply,” lawmakers wrote in the letter.

Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said the department has repeatedly failed to deliver timely information about food safety issues to schools and to parents.

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“I’m not sure it can be dealt with with just the department investigating itself,” he said.

“Ever since mad cow we’ve asked for better tracking systems for beef so we can inform consumers in a real-time fashion . . . but parents are constantly in situations with lack of information.”

The National School Lunch Program supplies commodities and cash subsidies to public and nonprofit private schools.

The USDA last week suspended inspections at Chino-based Hallmark Meat Packing, effectively shuttering the plant, saying the plant’s handling practices were inadequate.

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The lawmakers’ letter notes that the Humane Society’s video, released last month, “showed employees using forklifts, electric shocks and other inhumane means to force non-ambulatory (or “downer”) cows to stand so that they would pass federal inspection in the slaughterhouse.”

The plant may not reopen until a plan for corrective action is submitted and approved by federal authorities.

School districts nationwide have pulled suspect beef from their cafeteria menus, although the USDA has said no evidence was found of “downer” cattle entering the food supply.

Cattle that cannot walk are banned from being used as human food because they are at higher risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease.

Although the USDA’s inspector general is investigating, lawmakers said a separate federal investigation was needed to examine the government’s ability to protect students from dangerous foods.

In addition to Miller, Reps. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) signed the letter.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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