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The good news: an outbreak of salmonella bacteria related sickness last summer was correctly traced to a Beef Packers, Inc., plant in Fresno, CA and a recall of 825,769 pounds of ground beef was put in place. The bad news: at least 39 people in 11 states were sickened with salmonella related infections resistant to several antibiotics. The worse news: the recall did not apply to three batches of beef shipped by Beef Packers for school lunches. At that time, Beef Packers was the no. 7 ranked supplier of beef to schools.
The recall was announced by the government on August 6th, and covered only certain retailers. During the recall, all shipments of beef to schools were tested and one was found to contain the strain salmonella Newport. That one shipment was held back but the others, which tested negative, were shipped.
The difficulty with shipping meat under these circumstances is that a negative test may not mean the meat is clear of bacteria. James Marsden, a professor of food safety and security at Kansas State University, told USA Today that because salmonella is seldom distributed evenly in any lot of beef, "94% of the time, I won't find it even though it's there. Since one of the four lots tested positive, my recommendation would have been to include all four lots in the recall."
The government has a "zero tolerance" policy for E. coli and salmonella in beef headed out to become a school lunch. This means any sample that tests positive for either pathogen is rejected. Marsden calls the policy "courageous" and says that overall, food safety protections for schools perform well. However, this incident pointed up a weakness in the system. The government should have rejected all lots to be shipped during the recall, not matter what the test results showed. Marsden says the failure to do so was just "poor decision making."
Since competing its orders, Beef Packers has not bid on any further school contracts.