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Beef Recall Can Teach Schools a Lesson

By Roberta S. Gray, M.D.

This op-ed was published on Feb. 27, 2008, in The Desert Sun.

The scope of the problem is staggering. School officials across the country are scrambling to protect their students in the wake of the largest beef recall in U.S. history. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently recalled more than 143 million pounds of beef after slaughterhouse employees were caught abusing sick and injured cows slated for slaughter. But the recall comes too late for many schoolchildren, who have already consumed a good portion of the potentially harmful meat.

The USDA estimates that about 55 million pounds of the recalled beef distributed by the Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. went to school lunches and other public, federally funded nutrition programs.

Since the recall extends back to 2006, most of the beef has already been eaten. Schools with recalled meat still in their freezers are quickly disposing of it.

As a pediatrician, I know that children are especially vulnerable to the illnesses associated with tainted meat products, including the ones that can come from downed cows - cows too weak or sick to stand or walk on their own. Meat from these animals may pose a higher risk of E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease. But those aren't the only dangers our children face in the school lunch line.

The amount of potentially tainted beef that ended up in school lunches underscores a disturbing fact: The USDA's National School Lunch Program serves enormous amounts of high-fat, high-cholesterol meat products to children every year. This meat-heavy diet poses a serious threat to the health of children across the country.

To meet USDA nutritional requirements, the average school meal must contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. But because the USDA buys up millions of pounds of surplus beef, pork, chicken and other high-fat meat products to distribute to schools, most school lunch lines are filled with meaty options and not enough fruits, vegetables and other vegetarian foods.

The government's School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study has found that an astonishing 80 percent of schools are not in compliance with federal guidelines because they serve too much fatty food in the lunch line. A 2007 assessment showed that, on average, schools offer and serve lunches that contain about 34 percent of calories from total fat and about 11 percent of calories from saturated fat.

This abundance of hot dogs and cheeseburgers is literally causing big problems for young people. In 2010, nearly half the children in North America will be overweight or obese, according to a recent report in the nternational Journal of Pediatric Obesity. And with those added pounds comes an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and some forms of cancer later in life.

The USDA, which is charged with helping to feed millions of children, many of them from underserved populations, would be wise to use the beef recall as an opportunity to rethink the presence of high-fat meat products in the National School Lunch Program.

It's time to start replacing beef, chicken and other cholesterol-laden meats with healthier options, such as low-fat, high-fiber veggie burgers.

Healthy lunches rich in fruits, vegetables and other vegetarian foods provide growing children with the nutrients they need. Such foods also help children maintain normal body weights and develop good eating habits that can help reduce the risk of chronic disease later in life.

Because of rising obesity rates, today's youth may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, according to a report in The New England Journal of Medicine. But we can do something about that.

We can offer children healthier foods at home and school - because the problems with meat don't just stem from one slaughterhouse in California.

Roberta S. Gray, M.D., is a pediatric nephrologist practicing in North Carolina and South Carolina.


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