tampabay.com

Schools pull beef from menus

The USDA is investigating a report of abuse at a cattle slaughterhouse.

By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published February 6, 2008


Beef: It's what's not for lunch in most Tampa Bay area schools.

Schools in Hillsborough, Pinellasand Pasco counties have taken the unusual move of pulling beef from their menus while the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigates charges that a slaughterhouse supplying school lunch programs treated cattle inhumanely, which could pose a safety hazard.

School officials can't say how long students will have to do without hamburgers or eat spaghetti sans meatballs, but they don't think children have gotten sick. Here are answers to questions parents may have:

What beef is affected?

In Florida, the beef in question was headed to school lunch programs. Officials with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services say they are holding about 40,000 pounds of ground beef that was shipped to a warehouse in Winter Haven. They're also aware of beef shipped to out-of-state processing plants that prepare food items like taco beef and meatballs for schools. There has not been a recall at this time, but school lunch programs around the nation face similar concerns. In the west-central Florida area, however, Hernando County is unaffected.

What prompted the action?

Video footage released last week suggested that workers at a California slaughterhouse may have abused animals to force them into the slaughterhouse. The footage, recorded in an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States, prompted the USDA to place an "administrative hold" -- or an order not to serve -- on beef products that the Westland Meat Co. supplied to federal nutrition programs.

What's the health concern for people?

Regulations say cattle must be able to walk into the slaughterhouse on their own to ensure they are healthy. Animals that can't, so-called "downer" cattle, are not supposed to be used for human food and raise concerns about mad cow disease and other health risks. It is not known if downer cows actually entered the food supply. The USDA is investigating the allegations of problems.

What was done to the cattle?

A graphic video shows workers at the slaughterhouse ramming the animals with forklifts, using electric shocks, even shooting water up their noses in a practice that the animal welfare advocates compared to waterboarding. The footage was released by the Humane Society after a six-week investigation.

Could children get sick from consuming the beef?

Local school officials say they are unaware of children becoming ill -- and stress that they are acting in an abundance of caution. In Pasco, for example, cafeterias pulled all beef products, even items that didn't come from the supplier under investigation.

What does this mean for school menus?

They'll be featuring more chicken. And pork.

Hamburgers were a no-go Tuesday in Hillsborough. Pinellas students had to forgo meatball subs and a potato turbate this week. By a stroke of luck, Pasco wasn't serving beef this week, but stands ready to adjust menus that call for hamburgers and pasta with meatballs next week.

How long will the beef hold last?

Local school officials would like to know. Hillsborough cafeterias are waiting for word on whether they can use 3,269 cases of hamburgers, meatballs and beef crumbles valued at $62,094.

The USDA has asked schools to put a hold on beef for at least 10 days. After that, the agency is supposed to decide what happens.