Tests for microorganisms by Silliker Laboratories in Columbus, OH found that those sliced turkey breast and gravy meals tossed out by Florida schools last week never were a food safety risk.

Culinary Standards, the Louisville, KY vendor for Lee County Schools, blamed the bad odor emitted by the turkey meals on a chicken broth used in the gravy that had been cooked too hot during the rendering process.

In a Nov. 24th letter to schools impacted by the problem turkey meals, Culinary Standards President Rick Kriech said samples of the product were sent to the Ohio lab to test for Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli and Aerobic Plate Count.

“These tests revealed this incident is not a “food safety” issue, but a quality issue,” Kriech wrote.  “However, Culinary Standards still is concerned about the quality issue and has continued to investigate the cause of this problem.”

The Lee County Public School District based in Fort Myers, FL pulled 50,000 turkey meal servings from its cafeterias in the week before Thanksgiving Week because workers preparing the turkey encountered what they called “a foul odor.”

Lee Schools’ first priority was making sure the smelly meals were not “used in any way, shape or form,” said spokesman Joe Donzelli.  It’s second priority was to find out exactly what took place.   He provided a copy of the Culinary Standards letter to Food Safety News.

The subject of the questions was the “91411 Sliced Turkey Breast and Gravy” meal from Culinary Standards.

When we heated the returned samples,” Kriech continued, “we detected the odor that schools had complained about. We recognized the odor as a strong, rendered broth smell. We then began to investigate our ingredients and found the “Chicken Broth”, that is used in the gravy portion of the product, did indeed have a stronger than normal odor. The manufacturer was contacted and he revealed that during the rendering process for the broth, if the product is cooked too hot, it will create this strong odor.”

The supplier assured Culinary Standards that it does microbiological testing on their broth and it is not a “food safety issue”.  “None the less, it has caused this problem that we all experienced this past week,” Kriech said. “Culinary Standards has ceased using this supplier and has switched to a different supplier.”  He did not identify the company.

The Fort Myers-based school district, the ninth largest district in Florida and one of the 50 largest school districts in the United States, was told to dump the turkeys.

Lee County schools had 600 cases of the questionable turkey on hand, but pulled only boxes with specific time-stamped codes.  Students who missed out on the pre-Thanksgiving turkey instead were fed other available foods including pizzas, burritos and deli sandwiches.

The Lee County school cafeterias feed 80,000 students and 11,500 full and part-time teachers and staff members daily.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which operates the National School Lunch Program, is also expected to investigate the incident.