by Marion Nestle
Dec 10 2009

More school lunch meat shockers

That pesky newspaper, USA Today, has done it again.  It’s latest exposé on food safety points out that USDA rules for meat are more stringent for fast food than they are for school lunches and that fast food companies do a much better job of producing safe meat.

The reporters say, for example, that the schools use “old-hen” meat, whereas fast food places do not.  But things are getting better.  The USDA used to buy 30% of all the old-hen meat available, but now only buys 10%.

The article elicited an immediate response from the USDA. An offical wrote USA Today that USDA’s standards for meat sent to schools have been “extremely successful in protecting against food-borne pathogens…inspections and tests of that meat exceed those required for meat sold to the general public.”  That, alas, is not what these articles suggest.

While Congress is dithering over the FDA’s rules for food safety, it ought to be looking at USDA’s also.  At the moment, USDA has better rules than FDA but doesn’t always bother to enforce them.

Congress: get busy!  Better yet, how about considering a complete overhaul and creating ONE food safety agency!

  • Anthro

    If “old hen” is meat from exhausted laying hens, then they aren’t really very “old”–one or two years. Is this so bad? What is to be done with these poor birds if they are not used for food? I’m a vegetarian, mind you; but I do eat eggs (I have my own chickens).

  • What’s unsafe about old hen meat? It might not sound great, but stewed or, more likely, processed into nuggets or fingers, it would have more flavor than most other chicken meat, I’d think. And it would be as safe as any other chicken. No one has found “mad chicken” disease yet.

  • old hen,new hen,borrowed hen,blue hen-what the hell’s the difference !? a hen by any other name ! we hav far greater problems with eatin in this country & with our incompetent govt ‘s attempts 2 sav us from our food,than the issue of ingesting an old hen- & im a vegan !

  • Rebecca

    From the USA Today article:

    Because the hens are usually restricted to tiny cages, they often suffer from osteoporosis and have especially brittle bones that easily splinter. When schools reported bones in the chicken, the government stopped purchases for school meals in April 2003. After new provisions aimed at preventing bone splinters — and lobbying by the trade group, United Egg Producers — purchases resumed that July.

    Besides the bones issue, some scientists believe spent-hen meat is more likely to carry salmonella, which can be especially dangerous for children. A 2002 study by Washington State University’s Avian Health and Food Safety Laboratory found that spent-hen carcasses were four times more likely than broilers to be contaminated with salmonella. The spent hens in the study were from a single plant, so the results offer no proof that similar problems occur on a broader scale.

  • Christine

    Uhm, correct me if I’m wrong, but the age of a chicken does not make them prone to bacterial infections like salmonella. Unsanitary conditions and/or handling do.
    (However, you did point out the major flaw in the study, namely that all the data came from a single source, and not from several plants in different areas.)

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  • Jennifer

    My grandmother would be turning over in her grave, because she always insisted on a spent hen for stewing. In the 1960’s you could still find them occasionally in a super market. It is the most flavorful meat there is, and because of the age of the bird the best use is for chicken and dumplings, or soup.

    If schools are getting cheap meat from the USDA, they should just make sure to check it for bones when they open the can (I assume it arrives canned).

    I put my own chickens, turkeys, and beef in my freezer, and I’m well aware of the quality of meat from different aged animals. People assuming spent hens aren’t that good is just an example of how far away the general population is away from their food supply. It’s not that those hens aren’t good, it’s that the population is ignorant!