Susan Hartley knows exactly where the now-shuttered Hallmark meat plant is: The high-walled compound sits just six blocks from her office. But until 143 million pounds of beef from the company were recalled this week, the Chino Valley Unified School District food director had no idea some of the beef served in her cafeterias came from the old dairy cows slaughtered just around the corner.
Officials at Chino and other school districts around the country have little clue where the food supplied through the National School Lunch Program comes from. After this week's largest-ever recall of beef -- nearly 50 million pounds of which went to schools nationwide -- officials are nervous about the quality of the U.S. Department of Agriculture food that they have no choice but to trust.
"Schools are really held hostage," said Mark Coplan, spokesman for the Berkeley Unified School District, which spent five years weaning itself from the subsidized-food system that daily serves free or reduced-price lunches to 30 million low-income children. "They offer you pennies per child, . . and you are forced to spend those pennies on frozen products that subsidize the farmers, the meatpackers and meat producers."
USDA officials say that the health risks posed by the recalled beef are "very, very remote" and that good quality beef is served through the school lunch program.
Janet Riley, spokeswoman with the American Meat Institute, said there was no evidence the meat from the Chino plant was unsafe and disputed assertions that ground beef sold to schools though the federal program was unsafe or of inferior quality. "That is patently false," Riley said.
"We feed a lot of children, so I don't expect my children to eat filet mignon during lunch, and they'd rather have a hamburger anyway," she said. "We're obviously feeding a lot of children subsidized lunches, so we're trying to make sure we do that in a cost-effective, safe manner."
Half of the food served by the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the country, comes from the USDA program, which buys in bulk from lowest-bid processors. Critics say the system attracts large-scale industrial operations that are likely to cut corners to provide cheap beef.
"Those by design are not producing high-quality products. It's all about efficiency," said Moira Beery, a program manager with Occidental College who works with Los Angeles area schools to get them to use better quality, local produce.
Hallmark/Westland Meat in Chino bought cheap dairy cows and processed most of them into ground beef, which does not get a USDA grade and tends to be the catchall for scraps and less lucrative cuts of meat.
Chino has one of the largest concentrations of dairy cattle in the U.S., with 250,000 on about 100 farms. After three to five years, when a cow is no longer producing milk, it is sold to a slaughterhouse like Hallmark.
Truck drivers supplying cattle to Hallmark often said that the sickly dairy cows used there would be rejected at most other slaughterhouses, an animal-rights activist who worked undercover said in an interview with The Times.
Video footage released last month by the Humane Society showed workers using electric prods, forklifts and high-pressure hoses to force weak and sick cattle to their feet so they could be slaughtered. Cattle that cannot walk are banned from human food out of concerns of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease.
Authorities said Thursday that 20 million pounds of the suspect beef that went to schools had been consumed, 15 million pounds were on hold and 15 million pounds were still being traced. The USDA will take action against Westland to try to get it to pay the cost of the national recall, officials said.
Kenneth Clayton, associate administrator for the Agricultural Marketing Service, the USDA arm that administers the lunch program, said meat suppliers have to meet stringent standards. Carcasses need to be rinsed in acid, treated with steam and tested for bacteria at three stages: as carcass, as chunks of meat and during the grinding process. About 10 suppliers of ground beef who meet these criteria compete for contracts with the school lunch program.
But Beery said that means "we've come to accept that our food system requires things like acid-washing meat. . . . I don't think that is the food that we want to be serving our kids," Beery said.
Schools receive about 17 cents worth of commodities and $2.47 in cash per free lunch served. After labor and distribution costs, roughly a dollar is spent on purchasing food for a students' lunch, advocates say.
The USDA paid $1.48 to $1.55 per pound of ground beef, similar to the average wholesale price of lean ground beef.
Food services directors at the state's largest school districts in the state said they had believed USDA commodities to be of good quality.
"We do rely upon the USDA much like consumers do when they go to the supermarket, so it is disconcerting that this could occur," said Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for the Long Beach Unified District, the second-largest school district in the state.
Concerned about nutrition, Berkeley Unified officials decided about five years ago to scrap their heavy dependence on the frozen beef patties, plastic-wrapped cheese and other longtime staples of cafeteria school lunches. They now make lunch from scratch every day for all children who want it in the 9,000-student district. That includes the 37% who qualify for subsidized school lunches.
"We don't serve a scrap of federal school program commodities on our menus," said Coplan. "Most of that food is full of fat, full of cholesterol. . . . Our concern is childhood diabetes and obesity."
There are now salad bars at every public school, and fresh juice and trail mix bars have replaced soda and candy bars; pizza made with organically grown whole-wheat flour and as many locally grown products as possible has replaced the once ubiquitous hamburgers and pepperoni pizza as the school lunch favorite.
The district had to supplement its federal lunch funds with $1 million from its annual budget of about $100 million.
Chino officials said they don't see how they could afford the Berkeley approach in a district where nearly half of the 33,000 students qualify for a federally funded school lunch.
But state and federal inspectors have also looked askance at the program, saying they could not certify fresh salad ingredients as safe, for instance. Frozen meat and other commodities are regularly tested and are far easier to certify as safe, they told the local district.
A study published in 1996 in Johns Hopkins University's Epidemiological Reviews exploring how deadly Escherichia coli might enter the U.S. food supply found that "when the product was finally . . . made into hamburgers, it was nearly impossible to say which cattle, or even how many, went into the patties."
The researchers found that a single lot of beef at a large commercial meat packer came from as many as 11 sources in four states. In another case, they found that meat possibly tied to a large, 1993 E. coli outbreak in the West came from as many as 443 animals, which had come from six states through five slaughterhouses.
In Chino, school district officials this week were filling in the order sheet for next year's USDA commodities and crossing their fingers.
"I hope this is just one place. I hope it's not everywhere. I hope the others all follow the guidelines," district spokeswoman Julie Gobin said.