School officials think risk from beef recall is low

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(Host) 143 million pounds of frozen ground beef was recalled nationally over the weekend. And 40,000 pounds of it was delivered to Vermont schools and child care centers.

Half of the meat that was distributed in Vermont was served in the schools.

As VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, state officials say they’re not concerned, because the recall was precautionary.

(Sneyd) The recall over the weekend by a California meat company was the largest in history.

It was triggered by an investigation of alleged mistreatment of animals at the company’s slaughterhouse.

A video from the slaughterhouse suggested that “downer cows” – meaning those that can’t walk – were slaughtered and might have entered the food supply. That’s against federal regulations.

(Lohff) “Certainly, I’m not an expert in the area. But what I do understand is that if a cow is sick and not properly inspected and the meat from the cow ended up in the food chain, that that cow may have been at greater risk for having disease and passing that disease on to people.”

(Sneyd) Doctor Cort Lohff is the state epidemiologist. He says there’s no evidence that meat served in Vermont – or anywhere else – was tainted.

The food was recalled because there’s a possibility, but no proof, that some of the beef came from sickened cows.

The state Department for Children and Families says 40-pound cases of meat from the California slaughterhouse were delivered to 221 public schools in Vermont and five child-care centers.

Holly Peake coordinates the school lunch commodity program in Vermont.

She says she received notice on January 31st that the meat should be withdrawn and she immediately alerted schools.

(Peake) “Some schools may have had it longer, if they got their delivery the first few days of the month. Others might not have gotten their delivery ‘til the 15th or 19th of the month. But it was all within January. So it hadn’t been even a month when we put it all on hold.”

(Sneyd) It’s now been more than two weeks since schools were told to pull it from cafeterias and there have been no reported illnesses, either in Vermont or nationally.

That’s why officials say they think the risk to students is low.

Superintendent Stephen Metcalf says Montpelier schools got the recall notice before serving any of the meat.

He says schools could reduce risks by relying less on federal commodities.

(Metcalf) “I think this is probably one of those issues or incidents that bring attention to the need to look locally. The problem there, of course, is expense. We do get government surplus food, which helps us run an operation in the black. But, on the other hand, using local food is something we’re trying to be aggressive about exploring.”

(Host) Vermont has been a leader in promoting locally sourced food for its schools, despite the hurdles.

Metcalf says Montpelier school officials believe they can overcome many of those challenges.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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