Schools shelve bad beef

In response to national warnings that a California-based slaughterhouse had violated USDA regulations, the Mercer Island School District has restricted its use of meat products. On Feb. 1, MISD Food Service Director Cameron Danby received word from the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Schools (OSPI) that the Westland/Hallmark packing company was being investigated for slaughtering “weak cattle,” which violates USDA code. The district receives a small portion of Westland/Hallmark raw meat through its local beef processor, King’s Command.

Danby immediately posted the news on the district Web site, assuring parents that he was taking “every measure necessary to ensure that the beef products currently served on our menu are indeed safe.” A minimal percentage of the meat served at Island schools comes from Westland/Hallmark. All of these products are being set aside until the USDA verifies that further distribution of the beef is safe.

“Given the size of our district, it was fairly easy to determine if any of our current stock of beef products were on the list provided by King’s Command,” Danby said.

The food director emphasized that all parties — the USDA, King’s Command, OSPI and MISD — were taking every precaution to keep students from eating Westland/Hallmark meat.

“OSPI is in direct communication with the USDA, which is ‘using an abundance of caution’ for the situation,” he said. “The products are on hold until the [USDA] can complete its investigation, which may take as long as several weeks.”

More than 150 school districts in California, Arizona, Hawaii, Utah, Montana, Minnesota, Washington and other states stopped using ground beef from Hallmark Meat Packing Co. and Westland Meat Co. until the investigation is complete.

In addition to supplying the USDA National School Lunch Program, Westland/Hallmark also distributes meat to several fast-food restaurant chains.

The national warning stemmed from a video released last week by the Humane Society showing workers at Hallmark dragging “downed cattle” by their legs or using forklifts and water hoses to force weak cattle to their feet.

According to the USDA, it is illegal for packaging companies to slaughter weak cattle because their inability to walk may be a sign of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease.

So far, no meat-related illnesses have been reported. The USDA will continue to ban all Westland/Hallmark beef products until an official analysis is completed. Danby will update the community as news develops via the MISD Web site.

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