This week, you are going to hear a lot about what the federal government should be doing to clean up its act when it comes to making sure our food supply is safe.  John D. Dingell, powerful chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, is holding a public hearing on Tuesday that will hear from lots of experts, including our own Bill Marler.

With the Chino slaughterhouse scandal bringing the nation’s largest beef recall in history, facts are dripping out of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in bits and pieces.   USDA’s big wigs held a press conference last Thursday (2/21), and the transcript was published on their website this morning (2/25).

We learned more about the current operation of the 62-year old National School Lunch Program.

Hallmark, which operated the Chino slaughterhouse, was one 23 meat packers eligible to sell product to USDA for schools.  Westmark was one 10 eligible grinders that was eligible.  USDA viewed Hallmark/Westland as "one operation" from which they purchased 20 percent of all beef used by the federal school lunch program.

Bill Session, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, explained:

We have an eligibility process for suppliers that they must go through to be eligible to supply. And this is in course with the federal acquisition regulations. First they have to demonstrate financial solvency and their ability to be financially independent. They have to have the technology and the means as far as the equipment and the personnel to perform the task. They then have to submit what we call a technical proposal, and that outlines all of how they, all the specific processes they will go through to meet the requirements that are contained in our specification and contracts. And then once they submit that technical proposal, it is subject to a desk audit by our scientific staff back here in Washington. Then if it passes that, then they are subjected to an in-plant audit, and that means that they have to be doing what they say they’re doing and what they are doing meets the requirements contained in our specification and contractual requirements.

After that, they then become what was known as an "eligible supplier," and they then have to compete on a low-bid basis for the right to supply product. Once they are awarded a contract, we have an in-plant grader that is there monitoring the actual preparation and grinding process, and they oversee all aspects of that. In addition to that, we have monthly audits that they come in and look at all aspects of what was going on there. And additionally – I should say the plant would be operating under a federal grant of inspection; that’s the foundation that we build on. We are really no different than any other large commercial purchaser of ground beef items. We rely on our colleagues at FSIS to provide that foundation of safety; then we build on that with other specific requirements that meet the end needs of our users.

As of the press conference, USDA figured that 50.3 million pounds of the Hallmark/Westland beef that is subject to the recall (143.3 million pounds in total) went to federal nutrition projects.  Officials said 19.6 million pounds were consumed (mostly by school children) and 15.2 were "on hold" (mostly in school freezers).  An additional 15.5 million pounds are "being traced."

All product recovered through the recall will be destroyed without further testing, according to USDA.   Contracts require Hallmark/Westland reimburse the school lunch program. 

No E. coli, salmonella or other common food-borne illnesses have been attributed to the recalled beef.  Any reports of Mad Cow disease probably won’t be made  for 15 to 30 years.

The entire USDA transcript can be found here.