Thursday, December 10, 2009

Who is safer—USDA or Jack-in-the-Box?

A free lunch gone wrong.

About 15 to 20% of food used in school lunch programs nationwide is supplied by the United States Department of Agriculture. Mainly beef, chicken and some fruits and vegetables are scheduled for distribution to these kitchens. The USDA claims that they “meet or exceed standards in commercial products.” Words are cheap but rigorous testing is not. Little evidence is found to support the claim.

For firms like McDonald’s, Burger King and Costco, checking for bacteria and pathogens in product is more scrupulous in testing on any given day than the USDA. Ground beef is tested 5 to 10 times more often. Jack-in-the-Box is reliably set at ten times more often.

In a quote from USATODAY we find this: “For chicken, the USDA has supplied schools with thousands of tons of meat from old birds that might otherwise go to compost or pet food. Called "spent hens" because they're past their egg-laying prime, the chickens don't pass muster with Colonel Sanders— KFC won't buy them — and they don't pass the soup test, either. The Campbell Soup Company says it stopped using them a decade ago based on "quality considerations."

Nearly ten years ago, in 2000, then agriculture secretary Dan Glickman called for more stringent rules for meat sent to schools. Today, as increasingly more difficult standards are in effect for commercial operators, the level of scrutiny for schools has lagged behind. This is then coupled with less efficient assurance of local employee ability to monitor cooking times and temperatures to assure killing pathogens which slipped through the less than careful USDA cracks.

Commercial enterprises have several fears which insure their circumspect attitudes toward safety and product inspection. They are liable for failure to detect problems which result in widespread disease. They have to live (or die) with the consequences of a marketplace which has no trust in their product. They have an obligation to their shareholders to insure a constant revenue stream and a profitable operation. Their entire business model centers on providing a safe, edible and tasty product to their consumer. Failure to provide any of the preceding will signal the death of the enterprise.

The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is the agency which procures the meat for school programs and they claim they get the best products. They claim a zero tolerance for meats which test positive for salmonella or E coli0157:H7 which can cause serious illness or death. This prompts one to ask if there is someone or any agency which does not have that same zero tolerance. No sane person would endorse a group, government or commercial entity that was not on top of detecting these pathogens.

From 2005 to date, six different companies supplied AMS with ground beef including Beef Packers which had been previously suspended three times. Between November ’08 and January ’09 AMS purchased a half million pounds from Beef Packers and Skylark Meats with very high levels of generic E coli which is an indicator for the inclusion of intestinal parts of slaughtered animals which in turn are a gateway to the more dangerous E coli O157:H7.

“Colony forming units” (CFU’s) are the measuring units used to define the dangers. The ground-breaker for establishing industry standards, Jack-in-the –Box, refuses any batch containing an excess of 100 CFU. The acceptable level for AMS is 1000. This statistic by itself would satisfy the question in the title of the post.

As stated before, the fast food giants have a lot to lose by ignoring the warning signs through testing. They are often the butt of “humor” regarding the formation of all beef patties and other products but they take it very seriously; far more so than the federal government apparently. As the feds insist on more and more stringent controls, they lag well behind the industry standards and endanger our most precious and valuable asset—our children. This caught the attention of some in congress who raised a ruckus, called for investigations and then, like they did on so many issues, found the uproar died down when replaced by another crisis.

This is a replay of the same old story. We shall regulate you to bankruptcy but the government shall ignore the rules and cut corners. This issue, however, has the nearly assured potential to have a tragic outcome. The ever popular “mystery meat” served at the school lunch counter then takes on a far more sinister identity. It serves as yet one more example of governmental intrusion into matters where it has no legitimate concern. The administration of our local schools attaches hopes and dreams to the little faces lined up for the school lunch. They know these kids. Some are from their own families. It is unthinkable that they would allow them to be poisoned by some Washington bureaucrat.

The government “thinking” which is outlined here may be expected to carry over to a program of socialized medicine with even far more serious consequences. Nearly every federal program, with the possible exception of the defense establishment, comes complete with inefficiency, waste, incompetence and procedural sloth. Can you say TSA, USPS, Homeland Security, Amtrak, and on, and on, and on. It appears that our citizens expose themselves to more danger from the government than that presented by external forces.

In His abiding love,

Cecil Moon

(Some of the material for this post was gathered by investigative reporters for USA TODAY. For more details and information, go to their article for further enlightenment.)

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