When chickens stop laying eggs …

In part three of USA TODAY’s investigation into the quality of government-bought food for school lunches, we examine how its standards for microbial testing of school lunch beef are less stringent than those employed by fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Jack In the Box and KFC.

We also write about “spent hens” — birds that are past their egg-laying prime. Tough and stringy, these old birds typically are turned into pet food or compost. But egg producers struggling to find a market for all of them have had help from the federal government:

From 2001 though the first half of 2009, USA TODAY found, the government spent more than $145 million on spent-hen meat for schools — a total of more than 77 million pounds served in chicken patties and salads. Since 2007, 13.6 million pounds were purchased.

Both stories were heavily informed by analysis of data sets obtained from the USDA under the Freedom of Information Act. They included hundreds of thousands of orders from a federal inventory system and about 150,000 results of microbial tests of beef destined for school lunches.

Prompted in part by our series but also by last week’s recall of beef by a company we identified in Part Two of our series, one lawmaker has called for the government to investigate a supplier to the school lunch program. From another story of ours today:

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “undertake a comprehensive examination” of the facility, Beef Packers, to “identify and correct any major problems” before it produces more beef.

To see all the stories in our series thus far, click here.

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