WASHINGTON -- Meat chili. It's what's for lunch today when the 650 students of the Reardan-Edwall School District in eastern Washington state return to class.
The district is about a 90-minute drive from the Moses Lake plant where a Holstein infected with mad cow disease was slaughtered. News of that first mad cow case in the United States broke Dec. 23 when many of the nation's schools were on break.
That means today will be the first time that millions of students return to the school cafeteria, the place where hamburgers and meat-topped pizza often rule.
"The chances of the disease being contracted by humans is so minute that it shouldn't change the way we do things," said Rob Clark, superintendent of Reardan-Edwall.
Meat on the table
For his district, in a farming region with a cattle-rancher on the school board, Clark added: "I would have a pretty tough time, politically in this town, taking meat off the table. That doesn't mean I wouldn't; we have to make tough decisions. I just don't see it happening."
School districts must determine how, if at all, the mad cow case will affect what food they serve and what they do with frozen meat they have stockpiled. Many school officials say they are relying on the federal government's message: The food supply remains safe.
More specifically, a spokeswoman for the national school lunch program said no meat the government buys for schools comes from suppliers connected to the mad cow investigation.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is caused by a misshapen protein that eats holes in a cow's brain. Government officials say there is no threat to the food supply because the infected cow's brain, the spinal cord and the lower part of the small intestine -- where scientists say the disease is found -- were removed before the cow was sent for processing.
Still, as a precaution, the Agriculture Department has recalled more than 10,000 pounds of meat from about 20 cows slaughtered with the Holstein on Dec. 9. That meat was distributed to eight western states and Guam, although officials said most went to Oregon and Washington.
Federal meals safe
The department, which monitors the safety of animal health and meat, is also in the business of providing school lunches to an estimated 28 million children. That total includes the children who receive free or reduced-price meals through the federal lunch program and those who pay for them, but not students who buy lunch items a la carte.
Schools get a combination of reimbursement for federally approved meals and food directly bought by the government -- including a good portion of the beef served in schools.
"We're very pleased to report that none of the affected meat is in the national school lunch program, and we have notified our states of that," said Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service.
The department requires that any meat purchased for school lunches is slaughtered in the way that strips away potential disease-carrying tissue. The lunch program also for years has prohibited meat from "downer animals" that can't walk or stand on their own.
The lone diseased Holstein in Washington state was such a downer. The department last week announced a full ban on meat from downed animals as part of new safeguards.
The American School Food Service Association, which represents thousands of people who purchase and serve school meals, has updated its members through the holidays about the mad cow case. Included in its advice: reassure parents that government safeguards and school sanitation steps "result in safe school meals, including those meals that include beef."
Association officials said they remain confident in the safety of the U.S. meat supply, yet a spokesman said it is tough to gauge how schools will react when they return from break. Schools, in some cases, anticipate much stronger parental interest in what kids are eating.
In central California, the 34,000-student Clovis Unified School District plans to give students information they can take home about food safety and mad cow disease.
In New York City, home to the largest school district in the country, no menu changes are planned.
"We believe the beef in our schools is not affected by mad cow disease and is safe to serve," said Margie Feinberg, spokeswoman for the city's Education Department. "We will, of course, monitor and test our beef products very closely and take whatever action is necessary should there be any indication that there is a health risk."
On the Net:
American School Food Service Association: http://www.asfsa.org
National School Lunch Program: http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/defaul...
Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov