A weekend interview with ...
... Rick Kurtz, food and nutrition services director for Pasco County schools. Kurtz was one of many school district food services directors to remove beef from cafeterias while the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigates charges of inhumane and unsafe treatment of cattle at a slaughterhouse that supplies the school lunch program. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his decision and the impact on the lunch program for the future.
What prompted you to take action when you heard that there were concerns?
Well, I'm a parent. And if I had heard the initial reports I would be concerned about what my students are eating at school. And I'm very conservative. When I look at the fact that we have the most precious commodity that we serve, and that's children, we're just not going to take that risk. We didn't know enough about the situation to be serving some beef and not other beef products. So we decided to be as conservative as possible.
My understanding was that this was something local to California. Did it affect Florida in any meaningful way that you knew of?
Oh, yeah. The meat packing plants were out of Chino, California. The information started flowing from California early last week (week of Jan. 27). My first communications that we started hearing about it late Thursday and Friday. The more that was being discussed, then we found out it has broad impact, nationwide impact. It was the Hallmark Meat Packing Co. which sells meat to the Westland Meat Co., and they're all in California but they're the largest supplier of USDA beef. They do like 100-million pounds a year. And we had gotten information on Friday that some of the commodity beef ... based on communication with the Florida Department of Agriculture some of the beef designated for Florida and Florida schools was definitely beef from the Westland meat processing company. Then we determined on Friday that we just weren't going to serve any beef this week and make substitutions for next week to give us time to get to the bottom of the story and to gauge the public's concerns about beef and then try to make a determination of how we're going to move forward.
Is this an unusual circumstance? Or does this happen more often than we know and this is just one of the times we've heard about it?
It's very unusual. Especially this widespread. And I have not looked at the video, and I do not intend to look at the video. But anybody who does is going to be extremely upset and they're going to be concerned about how this could occur. And I think there will be ripple effects in terms of public perception on food safety, even outside of USDA commodities.
So do you then start thinking of not serving beef ever?
No. We had this issue several years ago with apples. It was a lot of concern over the safety of apple product, that's fresh apples. And I don't even remember ...
It was apples sprayed with Alar, right?
Right. And then that issue became, what about other fruits and vegetables? We immediately protected the integrity of our food supply in Pasco County, and then follow what is occurring in terms of USDA. Because of that, apples are now probably the safest fruit you can buy. We buy the individually sliced and wrapped apples, similar to what you would get at a Subway or a McDonald's. And we have extremely high consumption and the students love them. Beef will probably become one of the safest meats out there by the time the USDA finishes their investigation and then beefs up, excuse the term, their inspection process. ...
Do you think this will drive up prices? I remember seeing that you already had some concerns about prices.
There's no question. When ever something like this occurs, every industry is going to take a second look at what they're doing. So poultry, you know. There's a lot of mixed emotions on how fast chickens are taken to the market. Everybody will take a second look at those processes and make sure they're being safe. In the St. Pete Times in an unrelated article, they talked about one of the large pig operations in the Chicago area and they graphically talked about how they remove the brains from the pigs and employees have been getting sick inhaling minute particles of brain matter from pigs. So, then you're going to have all of the pig side being looked at. And when we look at the pork industry from a USDA perspective, there are so many safeguards in place. But everybody is going to double take a look at what's going on. ...
As a result of that happening, I wonder how much food prices or the cafeteria budget is going to have to rise to make sure things are handled appropriately.
Well, we were very, very happy that our initial projections like a month ago for just our food that comes from U.S. food services would probably be in the 9 percent increase over this year's price. Now we're debating that that's probably going to be 14 percent because of additional costs to ensure the safety. So even though commercial beef is safe and they've identified this as only the beef going to the USDA commodity program, the implications are everybody that's a meat packer, meat processor, needs to be careful with what they're doing. ...
I saw one of the things you were doing is replacing beef with different items, pork or chicken. ...
We have tacos in our elementary schools on Tuesday. So instead of having ground beef, we also have seasoned pork and seasoned poultry, turkey meat that is taco seasoned. So it is very easy for us to make the switch for tacos. What is very difficult for us is Wednesday is hamburger-cheeseburger day in elementary schools. I did not have enough of any one product to make a complete substitution. So we'll have chicken patties in most schools and barbecued pork in some other schools.
Everybody talks about mystery meat. Does this make that concern worse?
I am trying to figure out how to respond to that. When people talk about mystery meat, they are usually talking about a breaded patty that they don't know whether it's pork, beef or chicken. So many of us have moved away from that product that really mystery meat is not a comment we get. Because it's pretty clear what we're serving, and we advertise. So if we're using a pork product in our taco, or a turkey product, we actually would promote it because we're promoting it as a lower-fat item.
Is there anything else you think parents need to understand, or kids need to understand, about what has happened and how school districts are responding?
I think parents should be proud of the way the districts are responding and extremely disappointed in the corporate leaders of the companies that are involved in that they would risk the health of children in trying to increase their profits. It just aggravates the heck out of me. And we're going to pay for it. We're already struggling to make ends meet with everything we're doing to try to be healthier and provide healthy foods. It's just making it very, very difficult.
Related stories: Schools pull beef from menus, St. Petersburg Times, 2/6/08; South Florida schools pull suspect beef from substandard slaughterhouse, Sun-Sentinel, 2/7/08; USDA's oversight of meat safety criticized, LA Times, 2/7/08