WASHINGTON — Local school districts got incomplete — and at times tardy — information about last month's massive recall of suspect beef, several school administrators told Congress on Tuesday.
Testifying before a House of Representatives committee that's looking at ways to improve the safety and nutrition of school meals, Doris Rivas, the director of nutrition for the Dallas schools, said she first was under the impression that the district "did not have any of the product in question," only to learn weeks later that it did.
"I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for smaller schools that do not have the staff of a large school system," she said.
She noted that news crews were arriving at the school district warehouse to interview workers "as we were gathering all this information and responding to the recall."
That complaint was echoed by Mary Hill, the president of the School Nutrition Association, who said that many school districts didn't get timely notice of the recall and had to fend off calls from anxious parents.
"We did not have the information we needed to respond to the many questions we immediately received from very concerned parents," she said.
Federal officials recalled 143 million pounds of beef last month after the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video showing workers at a California slaughterhouse trying to force sick and crippled cows to stand — and be led to slaughter.
Hill told House committee members that the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to improve its communications system and that schools need "better guidance and more training" about recalls.
"Funds should be provided to execute the recall, to transport the product and dispose of the product," she said in prepared testimony. "Existing procedures are not adequate; state and local administrators have not been trained in advance on how to execute a recall of this magnitude."
Kate Houston, USDA's deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, defended the agency's response, saying that it uses a "rapid alert system," an automated, Web-based tool to relay emergency information to recipients, and worked with the federal Department of Education to send the recall information to every school district across the country.
But she also said Tuesday that the agency still doesn't know the total number of affected schools. About 94 percent of the beef from the California slaughterhouse — just over 50 million pounds — went to the national school lunch program.
Houston said the agency has tracked nearly 90 percent of the affected beef and that states "continue to report daily as they receive additional information from their local school food authorities."
The districts also pleaded for reimbursement for the purchase and disposal of the beef.
Miami-Dade food director Penny Parham said the Florida county had to buy additional food to make up for pulling beef off the menu.
She said the federal agency was "prompt and communicated effectively in its handling of the recall," but that it's also "of the utmost importance that they are also prompt in providing" reimbursement for the beef.
Houston said the agency would reimburse districts "pound for pound" for the beef purchased and reimburse them for disposing of the suspect beef.