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Schools deem beef served to students safe

The beef served to South Whidbey School District students is safe, according to district’s wholesale food supplier and the United States Department of Agriculture.

News of a cow testing positive for the deadly bovine spongiform encephalopathy — otherwise known as BSE or mad cow disease — at a Mabton. dairy farm had district officials checking with its wholesaler during the past two weeks. The disease destroys the brains of cattle, eventually killing them.

Dee Dee Curtis, food service supervisor for the district, said last week that the district’s food wholesalers — Food Service of America, King’s Command, ConAgra Foods and the Washington State Dairy Council — have assured the district that their products were made from healthy animals.

“The district’s beef suppliers sent letters assuring staff that the beef they sell is not from that area and is not from downer cows,” Curtis said.

Only about 2 percent of the district’s beef is purchased from Food Services of America. The remainder is bought from meat suppliers through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which distributes the beef to public schools at no cost. Since 2000, the USDA has excluded downer cattle from the meat served in the school lunch program.

The assurances about the safety of the beef supply come from some companies that have had trouble with contaminated beef in the past. ConAgra, for example, recalled 19 million pounds of beef in 2002 due to possible e-coli bacteria contamination, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Recalls are negotiated between the USDA and beef companies — they are not mandatory. The majority of recalls negotiated by the FSIS are for meat products.

Donna Parsons, supervisor of the summer food service program for the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, sent a statement to schools echoing the assurances of FSA and the other commercial companies.

“USDA is assuring us that none of the implicated beef products were purchased for distribution through the National School Lunch Program, or other federal food and nutrition programs,” Parsons wrote.

Concerns over the disease didn’t slacken demand for beef-related dishes at the schools during the last weeks two weeks. Curtis said she has not noticed a decrease in the number of beef lunches served to students. For example, Curtis said 170 hamburgers were served one day last week at South Whidbey Intermediate School.

District wide, only one student asked questions about the beef being served for school lunches.

During lunch Thursday at South Whidbey High School, students were selecting a number of beef products from the cafeteria including tacos, hamburgers and pizza. None felt that BSE contaminated beef could be in their lunches.

“I don’t think it’s a big deal for us. I am still eating beef,” said junior Erin Crouch.

Several students said their parents questioned them about the source of the school’s beef. But at school. the students were not overly concerned.

“My parents asked me, but we aren’t worried because it seems like an isolated case,” said junior Jenny Buzzell.

Curtis said the number of lunches sold at the school are increasing with the introduction of a new a la carte serving area in the school’s old kitchen. The “grab and go” line in the kitchen features sandwiches, soft tacos, salads, yogurt and fresh vegetables and fruit.

The South Whidbey School District serves a variety of beef products — most ground and all pre-cooked. King’s Command in Kent pre-cooks and prepares beef patties, dippers, meat balls, then ships the meat frozen to the district, according to Rick Pitt, the district’s maintenance and food service manager.

“The pre-cooking saves us money,” Pitt said.

The average number of lunches served daily in the district’s schools are:180 at the South Whidbey Primary School; 220 at the intermediate school; 267 at Langley Middle School; and 255 at the high school.

Copies of the letters of assurance from the school district’s beef suppliers are available upon request.

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