Schools scramble to find questionable meat

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Leave no patty unturned, no meatball overlooked.

That was the mandate late last week as school district officials across the Southland tried to identify all meat that had come from a Chino-based slaughterhouse accused of distributing ground beef from at-risk cattle.

Beef: An article in Sunday’s California section about the efforts of school districts to identify beef from cattle at risk of mad cow disease cited an L.A. Unified official who said schools cook meat twice in order to kill bacteria. Heat does not reduce the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, which is caused by an abnormality in a protein, not bacteria. —

This is not the first recall to affect California schools -- tainted strawberries and spinach have also caused scares in recent years. But potentially problematic ground beef is much harder to identify and eliminate because it goes through multiple processors before reaching the schools, and meat from different suppliers may be mixed up in the process, officials say.

“We’re in contact with our suppliers, and they’re in contact with their suppliers. It’s a huge chain of activity,” said Joanne Tucker, a food services marketing coordinator for the San Diego Unified School District, the second largest in the state.

The California Department of Education on Thursday urged all schools in the state to temporarily strike from the menu any item containing ground beef, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated claims that Hallmark Meat Packing butchered so-called downer cattle that are too weak to walk.


A video released Wednesday by the Humane Society of the United States showed workers at Hallmark dragging downed animals by their legs or using forklifts and water hoses to force weak cattle to their feet, prompting the federal investigation.

The USDA banned “non-ambulatory” cattle from the human food supply last year because inability to walk may be a sign of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease. Studies in Europe found that cattle that were unable to rise or walk were more likely than other cattle to carry the disease, which can be transferred to humans through consumption.

Westland Meat Co., which distributes meat from Hallmark, supplies ground beef to the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. Nearly 8 million pounds of meat from the supplier went to programs in California last year, and more than 5.7 million pounds were used in the Los Angeles area.

Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest district in California and the second largest in the nation, said it was looking through serial numbers of products in its warehouse to determine the products’ origin.

“In the entire food chain, there’s a number series so you can track things back,” said Dennis Barrett, director of food services for the district, which services nearly 700,000 students.

Irvine Unified School District was performing a painstaking inventory of its beef products Friday to eliminate any that came from Westland. The inventory “found some of Westland’s products,” which were immediately removed from the menu, spokesman Ian Hannigan said.


In Long Beach, officials were doing “some sleuthing and backtracking,” said Chris Eftychiou, a spokesman for the school district there.

Following the trail of ground beef is complicated because it ends up in a number of foods in school meals. Ready-made food supplied to the district, such as burritos, may also contain the meat from Hallmark.

“It’s a very large thing for us because we serve several items with it, like spaghetti has a ground-beef base,” Barrett said.

While officials were doing the detective work, a number of districts in Los Angeles and Orange counties pulled from the menu all items with ground beef, even those not supplied by Hallmark.

Barrett said L.A. Unified was not aware of any students being affected by contaminated beef. Meat from every producer is processed at least twice at hotter than 165 degrees, the temperature at which bacteria are killed, he said.

Sitting on the steps of Hollywood High School, senior Jose Marroquin said he was worried he might get sick from the meat.


“It’s school,” said Marroquin, 17. “If we’re hungry we just eat, we don’t think about whether it’s safe.”

Times staff writers David Haldane and Nardine Saad contributed to this story.