Several hundred schools may have received recalled beef, USA Today reported Wednesday. The beef, potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, was not purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) school lunch program, but by dozens of school districts buying food in the commercial market.


The USDA has come under fire in recent months for not disemminating recall information quickly– and the contaminated commercial beef served in schools adds a new layer of concern to an already complex system.


The beef showing up in schools is part of a 5.8 million recall initiated by Huntington Meat Packing Co in California. The firm announced an 800,000 lb recall in January and then widely expanded the recall in mid-February.


As Food Safety News reported last month, two school districts in California are known to have served the potentially contaminated meat. Tejon School District in Lebec and Frazier Park and Bearsley School DIstrict in Oildale each served pre-cooked and packaged burritos on the recall list in their cafeterias just days before the recall was announced.


“No one knows how many schools got products containting the recalled beef,” noted USA Today earlier this week. The paper’s review of records suggests “at least several hundred” schools likely recevied products containting the recalled meat.


USA Today found several examples of schools receiving delayed recall information. Aramark, a food service company that supplies 500 school districts across the country, indicated it took some suppliers up to 10 days to send recall alerts to warn customers about the potentially contaminated meat.


In California alone, over 200 schools are known to have received products containing the Huntington meat. In Arlington, Texas, one school district served over 11,000 recalled tacos to kids.


“There needs to be a way to notify people earlier — obviously, if we’d known sooner, we would not have served those tacos,” Jackie Anderson, food director for the district told USA Today.


The school district notified parents about the meat and no children were sickened.


Donna Rosenbaum, executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.), said there have been several occasions where recalled products have made it to schools. Rosenbaum recently told Food Safety News that her organization is “very concerned” about the slow trickle of recall information to schools.

“You trust the system to deliver safe food to kids,” said Rosenbaum.

In response to increased scrutiny over safety issues, the USDA announced a series of policy initiatives to the food safety system for federal nutrition programs.


The agency announced it will implement new food safety purchasing requirements for its beef suppliers and it has asked the National Academies of Science (NAS) to review the entire ground beef purchasing program.


In its scientific review, NAS is charged with reviewing the Agriclture Marketing Service (AMS) purchasing requirements as well as benchmarking the requirements against leading food industry standards. 


(USA Today also recently found fast food chains had more stringent safety standards than the National School Lunch Program.)

The USDA is establishing a Center of Excellence devoted to research on food safety issues in child nutrition programs and the agency will be reviewing and evaluating the communication between state agencies and school districts regarding product recalls.


“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our Nation’s school children,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, when he announced the changes in early February.