How do you make 18,000 pounds of beef disappear?
Although it may sound like a trick question, it was a very real issue last week for Lynnelle Grumbles as she and other school food service managers throughout California grappled with the aftermath of the largest beef recall in U.S. history.
Grumbles, food services director at Visalia Unified School District in the San Joaquin Valley, started by calling a food processing plant that could convert the recalled beef from schools in her area into usable material. But officials there didn't want the meat because the company makes feed for chickens that will eventually be consumed by people. She then called two nearby landfills, both of which balked at the thought of the stench. Burning the beef was also out of the question because of the state's air pollution laws.
"It was very frustrating because we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with it," Grumbles said.
She eventually found a landfill an hour and 15 minutes away that agreed to take the beef, which was worth $18,000.
School districts received a memo late last month that instructed them to destroy the recalled beef. Roughly a third of the 143 million pounds of beef recalled went to schools across the nation through the Agriculture Department's National School Lunch program.
School district representatives from across the country are scheduled to testify at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing today. Some representatives were expected to criticize the fragmented way in which schools received information about the recall, said Rachel Racusen, spokeswoman for Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), the committee's chairman.
The directive said the beef was to be taken to a landfill, incinerated or sent to a rendering plant. A high-ranking official was to follow the beef to where it would be destroyed and document what happened. In addition, two witnesses would have to sign a destruction verification.
School officials said they also were instructed to report their losses and the cost of destroying the beef. But they said it was not clear how or when they would be reimbursed.
For Long Beach Unified, the third largest district in the state, hauling more than 70,000 pounds of meat produced by the now-shuttered Hallmark/Westland plant to landfills turned out to be a weeklong ordeal that cost about $7,000, not including the cost of replacing the beef, said Cecelia Slater, food services director for the district. Slater said she has been fielding calls from many smaller school districts that are frustrated by the process.
Employees at the Chino-based slaughterhouse and meat packing company, the No. 2 supplier of ground beef to USDA-run federal food assistance programs, were videotaped using cruel methods to force cattle that were unable to walk to their feet and into a slaughter box, triggering public outrage and eventually leading to the recall.
Officials have said health risks posed by the recalled beef are minimal, but many school districts are still keeping all beef products off their menus as a precaution and serving ground turkey and chicken, as well as vegetarian items.
Sally Spero, San Diego Unified's food planning supervisor, said the USDA's recall process had improved since a 1997 strawberry recall that caused scares in schools.
"We sat on those strawberries for three months," waiting to be told what to do with the contaminated fruit, Spero said. "This recall went pretty quickly considering the size of the thing."
For Spero, who manages food for the district that serves 139,000 students, having to dispose of 22,000 pounds of beef was not too big a disruption. The beef, which amounted to about two truckloads, was only two weeks' supply, she said.
But for Lemoore Union Elementary School District in Central California, the 6,000 pounds of frozen beef was supposed to feed children for the next six or seven months, into the next school year. Food services Director Renee Dykstra was worried about making ends meet. If the Agriculture Department is unable to replace the ground beef soon, the district will have to spend $20,000 to buy it from a market, Dykstra said.
"We have a very small amount of money to work with," said Dykstra, who testified before a state Senate hearing last week about her district's concerns.
L.A. Unified officials are estimating the district's losses at $105,000 for the 155,000 pounds of beef in their freezers. Although reimbursements from the USDA in the past have been fairly straightforward, deputy food services Director David Binkle said he was concerned about the scale of this recall. "This being the largest recall, we'll see how they react to this," he said.