Recall issued for beef used by school lunch programs

COVINGTON - The Newton County School System is one of the now 37 school systems in Georgia affected by a recall of beef from a California slaughterhouse under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA recalled 143 million pounds of beef Sunday that came from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Company, which is a major supplier to the USDA program that distributes beef to the National School Lunch Program. Officials said approximately 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school lunch programs.

"USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has evidence that Hallmark/Westland did not consistently contact the FSIS public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with FSIS regulations," according to a statement from the USDA Sunday. "Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection, FSIS has determined them to be unfit for human food, and the company is conducting a recall."

As of Monday afternoon, 32 Georgia school systems, including Newton County Schools, reported having some of the recalled products; five other school systems have purchased products from Hallmark/Westland but did not have any of the recalled products left in their stock.

"We obviously will not be using the beef in question," said Sherri Viniard, director of public relations for NCSS.

She said because of the Presidents' Day holiday, she doesn't know what recall procedures the school system will have to follow.

"The Georgia Department of Education is notifying all school systems today of the recall and the proper procedures for destroying the beef," according to a press release from the GaDOE Monday afternoon. "The recalled meat must be destroyed following strict USDA procedures. Once this is done, the systems will notify the GaDOE's School Nutrition division and they will report out to USDA. School systems will be reimbursed for the cost of destroying the recalled beef as long as they follow USDA protocols."

The USDA will determine if it will reimburse the affected school systems for the cost of the food, according to the GaDOE press release.

The recall affects products dating back to Feb. 1, 2006, according to the Associated Press.

"Some of the beef in question has been consumed," according to the GaDOE press release. "But USDA officials stress that there is a very low risk of illness, since Westland did put its cattle through the required pre-slaughter screenings."

NCSS said it is possible some of the affected beef may have been used in its school lunch programs, but it has received no reports of illnesses connected to the situation at any of its schools.

Vernon Goins, public relations coordinator for the East Metro Health District, said Monday morning that EMHD has received no reports of any sicknesses from Newton, Rockdale or Gwinnett counties. He said Wednesday that any sicknesses would be reported to EMHD.

"We've got our ears to the ground," he said Wednesday.

The USDA opened the investigation on the California company Jan. 30, when it was notified of "inhumane handling" of cattle at the plant, according the a USDA press release.

FSIS required the company suspend its operations, and on Friday, two former company employees were charged - one with five felony counts of animal cruelty and one with three misdemeanor counts of illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal - but no charges have been filed against the company yet, according to the Associated Press.

NCSS will use alternative products from its food vendor until it is no longer necessary; Viniard didn't know whether or not Westland would provide the school system meat in the future.

"The USDA determines where the beef is purchased," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Michelle Floyd can be reached at michelle.floyd@newtoncitizen.com.