Nearly 1,000 pounds of beef and taco mix are in limbo in school freezers in Huron and Erie counties after a nationwide recall of 143 million pounds of beef. Federal authorities estimate about 40 million pounds of the questionable beef went to school lunch programs.
That news prompted area school officials to stay on alert for potentially sickening beef. Norwalk, Bellevue and Sandusky schools discovered they had questionable beef in their freezers.
"It's all over the United States. We're not the only ones who got it," Dorothea Miller, food service director of Norwalk City Schools, said. "It could have been a lot worse -- we could have had a lot more."
Local school officials maintain that none of the dubious meat wound up in the bellies of students. But state education officials say some of the meat dates back to February 2006 and undoubtedly was fed to students. These officials say they have no records of students who became sick.
Before the meat is fed to students, it is often cooked and examined several times over, suggesting the health risk was minimal, Ohio Department of Education spokesman Scott Blake said.
"The school doesn't just get boxes and boxes of raw hamburger. The way the program works, there's processors who take that beef and turn it into Salisbury steaks, taco filling, chili -- things like that. It also goes to the schools where it has to be heated before it can be served," Blake said.
"This really isn't as much a food safety issue as it is a processing or slaughtering procedural thing."
Norwalk City Schools has set aside about 450 pounds of taco meat and mix and 368 pounds of beef hamburger patties that were listed "on hold" by the Ohio Department of Education.
Norwalk food service officials check a government Web site regularly that gives notice about orders and recalls. Miller said that is how she learned 15 boxes containing taco meat were put on hold, as were 16 boxes containing more than 20 pounds of beef patties each.
"The hold means we're not allowed to use them until the government tells us one way or another," Miller said.
The lunch menu of Norwalk students will not affected by the hold, Miller said. The district has enough other taco mix for which the quality is not in dispute to make it until the next shipment arrives.
Sandusky City Schools Dining Services supervisor Tom Freitas said he learned in the past two weeks the district had as much as 150 pounds of recalled beef patties on its shelves. He said the bad batch was thrown out after Gordon Food Service gave the district proper notice.
"Any we had was disposed of. It had been on hold for a couple of weeks as (authorities) were making the decision whether to recall it or not. ... We got rid of it into the Dumpsters," Freitas said.
The Bellevue school district has about 120 pounds of ground beef on hold, said Jackie Hess, director of food services.
"They are on hold and not considered as needing to be thrown away because they are still investigating it. But we only had four cases, and we're still waiting," Hess said. "They just want to be safe and said hold these until we investigate."
All of these measures were taken after the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, Calif., voluntarily announced the recall of about 143 million pounds of raw and frozen beef products that were not properly inspected, according to a USDA press release.
Some of the boxes of meat have dates printed on them, and others carry codes. School food service officials compared those indicators against their stocks to determine if any were flagged.
The meat products that are on hold at schools across the state will almost certainly be destroyed, state education officials say.
"From what I understand, it's all but inevitable that it will happen," Blake said.
The department of education has a list of more than 66 schools and districts affected by the meat recall.
Repayment to the affected districts for the bad meat has yet to be worked out.