School lunch safety

Mystery Meat


Fast food restaurants are reputed to be cut-rate, unhealthy outfits, while government-run schools are supposed to be public-spirited and socially responsible. But according to a USA Today investigation published in December, meat that would be rejected by McDonald's and Jack-in-the-Box is being served to American schoolchildren.

School meat is tested less often than restaurant meat and for fewer contaminants. With ground beef, for example, fast food joints typically pull samples for testing from the line every 15 minutes and test composite samples every hour or two. The Agricultural Marketing Service, the wing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that buys meat for schools, pulls samples just eight times a day, and it combines them into a single daily test. 

Why the difference? For one thing, fast food companies have more at stake. Most implemented higher standards after four children died from food contaminated by E. coli at Jack-in-the-Box in 1993. The tremendous negative publicity, plus a $50 million settlement for the families of the dead and the hundreds sickened, provided more than enough motivation to institute up-to-date sanitary standards. The rest of the industry followed, leaving the mystery meat to the schools.