Project: School lunch safety

Today, my colleagues Blake Morrison, Peter Eisler and I published the second part of our investigation into the safety of food used in the National School Lunch Program. Today’s installment focuses on a California firm that kept receiving government contracts even after  it had been suspended from the program several times — twice because of failure to produce ground beef that was free of salmonella.

When the firm, Beef Packers, recalled beef last summer because of a salmonella outbreak in 11 states, the government decided not to recall beef made for school lunches that the company made around the same time:

The recall, announced by the government Aug. 6, covered only ground beef sent to certain retailers. In the days after it was announced, government and company spokesmen said meat sent to schools was not included. Documents obtained by USA TODAY through the Freedom of Information Act reveal a more complicated story — one that raises questions about whether the government took adequate steps to ensure that meat it bought for schoolchildren during the same period was safe.

To get at the story, we filed FOIA requests for several government data sets. They included the results of hundreds of thousands of microbial tests conducted by the USDA as well as a dump from an inventory system the government uses to track orders for the school lunch program.

Update, 12/7/2009: Morrison and Eisler report that Beef Packers issued its second recall this year for beef tainted with salmonella.

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