UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service
Testimony of Kate J. Houston, Deputy Under Secretary
Before the House Committee on Education and Labor
March 4, 2008
Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. I am
Kate Houston, Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services (FNCS)
at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Thank you for inviting me to
appear before you today as part of the hearing, Challenges and Opportunities for
Improving School Nutrition.
The mission of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is to
increase food security and reduce hunger in partnership with cooperating
organizations by providing children and low-income people access to food, a more
healthful diet, and nutrition education in a manner that supports American
agriculture and inspires public confidence.
USDA’s 15 federal nutrition assistance programs collectively
touch the lives of one in five Americans in the course of a year. And as this
Committee knows, the school meals programs – two of the largest nutrition
assistance programs – represent an especially important opportunity to improve
the health and well-being of the Nation’s school children. With over 101,000
schools and institutions participating in the National School Lunch Program and
nearly 84,000 participating in the School Breakfast Program, USDA is proud that
schools across the country are providing safe, wholesome, and nutritious meals
to over 31 million school children each school day.
I have been invited here today to provide the Committee
important information on a critical issue facing the Department, consumers, and
schools—the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company (Hallmark/Westland) beef
recall. As Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer has assured the public, I want to
assure you—the food supply is safe. This includes USDA commodities available to
schools and other outlets participating in our nutrition assistance programs.
On January 30, 2008, the Humane Society of the United States
brought to public attention an alarming and disturbing video showing the gross
mistreatment of cattle. Secretary Schafer has described the footage depicted in
the video as “shameful and irresponsible.” The Department has pledged to find
out what went wrong at the Hallmark/Westland and to hold anyone involved in
violations fully accountable for their actions.
As has been reported, Hallmark/Westland was one of the
contractors of commodity ground beef and beef products for the National School
Lunch Program. In total, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) purchased
about 20 percent of USDA commodity ground beef and beef products from
Hallmark/Westland. About 94 percent of this beef—just over 50 million pounds—was
directed to the National School Lunch Program. In addition, some schools may
have purchased beef from Hallmark/Westland commercially.
The same day the video was released, USDA immediately put the
administrative and regulatory tools at our disposal to work. We launched
investigations by our Office of the Inspector General and by our Food Safety and
Inspection Service (FSIS) and AMS. Those investigations are ongoing. We also put
an immediate administrative hold on the use of Hallmark/Westland products dating
back to October 1, 2006 received by the school lunch program and our other
nutrition assistance programs.
Over the past five weeks, as information has become available,
USDA has taken further actions with regard to Hallmark/Westland. Based on
evidence from the ongoing investigation, FSIS recommended to Hallmark/Westland
that it undertake a recall of all products produced at the plant since February
1, 2006, and Hallmark/Westland initiated a voluntary recall of 143 million
pounds of fresh and frozen beef products.
USDA recommended that this action be taken because of a serious
violation of FSIS’ animal slaughter rules. For that reason, USDA recommended
this be a Class 2 recall. While it is extremely unlikely that these animals
posed a risk to human health, recall action was deemed necessary because the
establishment did not comply with FSIS regulations. USDA is requiring that any
unconsumed products affected by the recall by destroyed or rendered inedible.
Immediately following the recall, Food, Nutrition and Consumer
Services’ Under Secretary, Nancy Montanez Johner, pledged that the Food and
Nutrition Service (FNS), along with our Department partners, would do everything
possible to assist State Agencies and schools in responding to the recall. She
also made clear that parents and their children should continue to have
confidence in the safety of the food supply as a whole, including meals served
as part of the National School Lunch Program.
We at the Department of Agriculture take this recall very
seriously. It is the largest beef recall in U.S. history and its impact is
wide-reaching. It has affected nutrition assistance programs in 45 States and
the District of Columbia. We do not yet know the total number of affected
schools. While managing a recall of such proportion has many challenges, FNS,
together with our Department partners, has taken a series of actions to maintain
clear lines of communication with States and local programs, and to minimize
disruption to school meal service operations.
Ongoing communication is critical to effectively carry out a
recall of this magnitude. From the time of USDA’s decision to suspend
Hallmark/Westland contracts, FNS has utilized all available channels to provide
ongoing communication with State agencies, school officials, and other key
USDA utilizes a Rapid Alert System (RAS), an automated,
web-based tool to communicate emergency information to USDA commodity
recipients. It allows State agency cooperators to immediately receive
information by several means, including cell phone, email, or fax. The system
uses the communication tools sequentially until the recipient acknowledges
receipt of the message, which confirms to USDA that all affected parties
FNS immediately activated the RAS following the January 30,
2008, administrative hold, and provided the necessary information for States and
Indian Tribal Organizations (ITO) to track the product and suspend use until
further notice. A follow-up notice was sent to all States and ITOs about the
When FSIS announced the recall on February 17, 2008, the same
procedures were followed. Issuances through RAS and e-mail went out on February
17, February 19 and February 26 to announce additional products as the
trace-forward and trace-backward investigations continued.
FNS also partnered with the U.S. Department of Education to
disseminate the recall information to school officials in every school district
across the country. FNS has developed and disseminated information for
specialized audiences, including State Agencies, school officials, and parents.
State distributing agencies provided schools with State-specific, detailed
instructions for the appropriate destruction of product in accordance with local
health agency requirements. Talking points were developed and provided to
schools for use in communicating recall information to concerned parents.
FNS stakeholder organizations have also been invaluable to
disseminate critical information regarding the recall. Over the past weeks, FNS
reached out to numerous organizations, including the School Nutrition
Association, the American Commodity Distribution Association, the National
Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals, and the National
School Boards Association. All agreed to provide assistance, and we are grateful
for their help.
To further ensure school food service professionals are fully
informed, FNS posted recall information on FNS’ food safety website and utilized
the Meal Talk list serve to advise them of its availability. Specialized staff
in FNS’ seven regional offices is on call to provide ongoing technical
assistance to States and schools.
USDA has been working aggressively with both States and local
program operators to locate affected product as expeditiously as possible. I can
report today that significant progress has been made. Within hours of USDA’s
decision to suspend Hallmark/Westland contracts on January 30, FNS identified
which State agencies ordered commodity beef products from Hallmark/Westland and
in what amounts. These products were immediately placed on hold and since that
time, have not been available for use in schools and other nutrition assistance
FNS is actively collecting information from States to determine
the status of affected beef that has been consumed or is being destroyed. States
have been responsive and almost 90 percent of affected beef has been tracked.
States continue to report daily as they receive additional information from
their local school food authorities. The States’ responsiveness reflects the
effectiveness of the RAS and the positive relationships we have nurtured with
State officials and stakeholder organizations. As of February 29, thirteen
States have completed their reporting on the status of affected product, and
reporting is in progress and nearing completion in the 32 additional States
affected and the District of Columbia. We continue to work with States to
complete a full accounting of all affected products dating back to February 1,
There are some challenges in identifying all affected product
involved in the nutrition assistance programs, and these challenges can slow
down the completion of this process. For example, USDA must rely on States to
provide information on where the affected meat was distributed following USDA
delivery to our State customers, and in most cases, States rely on schools to
provide information back to the State. Local schools have yet to finalize their
reports to States regarding the status of affected product covered by the recall
dating back to February 1, 2006.
Furthermore, the commodity distribution system is complex. About
60 percent of the Westland product purchased for schools went to further
processors to convert the ground beef into value added products, like meatballs
or hamburger patties. That meat is often commingled with other product. While
the identity of the product is not lost, it adds a layer of complexity to the
tracing and reporting process.
Finally, when a product reaches a distributor or State
warehouse, product is not segregated by manufacturer, but by product type, such
as beef taco meat. There can be several of the same type of product by different
manufacturers all stored in the same warehouse location. Accordingly, in a
recall, the distributors and warehouses must contact every school that received
a specific type of product, and provide identifying information, including lot
numbers on the recalled product for the schools to use when locating the product
in their systems. As I’m sure you can appreciate, all of these activities take
time to complete.
While the process of tracing all affected product continues, FNS
and AMS are working as quickly as possible to provide replacement product to
schools with the goal of minimizing disruption to local school food service
operations. We are working with States and further processors to prioritize
shipments to destinations with the greatest need, and we are working with
schools to determine their needs for product replacement for the remainder of
the school year. Because the end of the school year is fast approaching, USDA is
offering schools a choice of replacement product or credit to their commodity
entitlement accounts that will be available for the next school year.
Mr. Chairman, this is the most up-to-date information I can
provide today on the recall. USDA staff has held several staff-level briefings
for House staff over the past weeks, and as our efforts continue, I would be
pleased to provide updates to the Committee as new information is available.
I also want to take this opportunity to share a broader view of
FNS’ activities to ensure school food safety, and to briefly mention the wide
array of other important activities ongoing within the Agency to improve meal
quality, participation, and program integrity.
There are many controls in place that allow us to have
day-to-day confidence in the safety of meals served in schools, and school meals
have a demonstrated safety record. Congressional and USDA action has been
crucial in developing a strong school food safety system, which was further
enhanced by the passage of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of
2004. The mechanisms and resources Congress provides have allowed us to develop
a robust and successful school food safety record.
To implement the food safety provisions of the Act, USDA issued
“Guidance for School Food Authorities: Developing a School Food Safety Program
Based on the Process Approach to HACCP Principles,” which was distributed to all
school food authorities in the summer of 2005. The process approach to HACCP
(Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) is a food safety management system
that focuses on the control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards in
food by scrutinizing every step of the food preparation process.
Through a HACCP-based food safety program, schools can identify
potential food hazards, identify critical points where hazards can be controlled
or minimized, and develop monitoring procedures to determine whether the hazards
identified are effectively controlled.
The HACCP Guidance was developed with input from a variety of
stakeholders, including representatives from FSIS, the Food and Drug
Administration, the National Food Service Management Institute, the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, the School Nutrition Association, the National
Environmental Health Association, State and local public health Agencies, and
State and local education agencies, including school food service directors.
The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 also
increased the existing food safety inspection requirement from one to two per
year. These health inspections must be conducted by the State or local
governmental agencies responsible for food safety inspections. The Department
provides school districts with ongoing food safety education and outreach to
program stakeholders by conducting presentations throughout the country to
inform State and local health and school officials about food safety inspection
In addition to our ongoing work to ensure the safety of school
meals, FNS is engaged in a variety of activities that support, encourage, and
promote efforts to improve the quality of school meals, and the nutrition
environment more generally, in ways that are both consistent with the latest
nutrition science, and meet the specific needs and circumstances of each
To conform meal standards to the most recent Dietary Guidelines
for Americans (DGA), FNS has contracted with the National Academy of Sciences’
Institute of Medicine (IOM) to recommend updated meal patterns and nutrition
requirements for both the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast
Program. When the IOM recommendations are final, FNS will then engage in the
formal rulemaking process to promulgate a proposed rule that incorporates the
IOM recommendations to the fullest extent practicable.
While IOM is working to develop recommendations, FNS is
encouraging State Agencies to provide technical assistance to school food
authorities so that they can begin implementing the applicable recommendations
of the 2005 DGAs within the current meal pattern requirements and nutrition
standards. This spring, FNS will issue updated school meal pattern guidance and
a series of nutrition fact sheets to assist foodservice professionals and menu
planners in implementing the 2005 DGAs.
In addition, FNS has launched an aggressive initiative to
improve the nutritional quality of its commodity program. Schools participating
in the NSLP today have access to the widest choice of healthy commodity foods in
history. Over the past two decades, we have worked to reduce the levels of fat,
sodium, and sugar. We now offer schools more than 180 choices of quality
products, including whole grains and low fat foods. FNS also continues to
promote the HealthierUS School Challenge and support implementation of local
wellness policies as part of its broad strategy to reduce obesity and improve
the nutritional health and well-being of children. To ensure a strong future for
the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, FNS is working hard to improve
program participation among children from all income levels, and we are working
with schools to strengthen program integrity by assisting schools in improving
the accuracy of meal counting and claiming. In particular, FNS is focusing
efforts on improving participation in the School Breakfast Program, where a
significant disparity exists between the average daily participation in the
School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program.
While we all recognize that providing nutritious meals in a
healthy school nutrition environment is important, school children represent a
particularly vulnerable population, and first and foremost, USDA, along with our
partners at the Federal, State and local levels, has a responsibility to ensure
school meals are safe.
We are proud of our many efforts to ensure the safety and
improve the quality of school meals, and many of these efforts could not have
been possible without the School Nutrition Association and the many school food
service professionals who give their very best to provide nutritious meals in
our schools each day.
As we celebrate National School Breakfast Week, I would like to
conclude by thanking Congress and the school food service community for your
daily commitment to the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.
Thank you for the opportunity to share the work of USDA with you