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Local schools say 'hold the beef' after cow video

DETROIT LAKES -- Recent action by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Department of Education may have left some students asking, "Where's the beef?"

All Minnesota districts were notified Jan. 31 by the MDE about a hold placed on beef from the Westland Hallmark Company, by the USDA.

Beef from the company is used in the federal school lunch food distribution program.

The beef was placed on hold pending "an investigation into the inhumane handling of non-ambulatory disabled cattle," according to the MDE press release.

The USDA placed the hold on the beef because of allegations, by the Humane Society of the United States, of inhumane handling of cattle to disabled to walk.

Last year, more than 27 million pounds of Westland's beef found its way to lunch trays in 36 states, including Minnesota, through the National School Lunch Program, according to the Humane Society of United States.

The group released a video on Jan. 30 showing workers dragging and pushing cows with bulldozers as the animals squeal in pain. The video can be viewed on the Humane Society of United States Web site.

At least four sick animals were slaughtered for food, the organization said.

"These injured animals are supposed to be humanly euthanized," the video says. "Instead plant workers would hit, drag, do anything to possible to get them to stand up, so they could later pass USDA inspection and be slaughtered."

According to a USDA statement on Jan. 30, the USDA's "Food Safety and Inspection Services prohibits non-ambulatory disabled cattle and cattle tissue identified as specified risk materials for use in human food."

Slaughterhouses are prohibited from butchering "downer" cows, or those that can't walk because their legs are broken, tendons severed or nerves paralyzed because they tend to have a higher incidence of what's known as mad cow disease, an illness that devastates the brains and nervous system of the animals.

So, how are some area schools handling this? Detroit Lakes, Lake Park-Audubon, and Frazee-Vergas schools all put suspected beef on hold. Lake Park-Audubon also made some changes to their school menus, which Superintendent Dale Hogie said was a precautionary measure.

As of Thursday, Hogie said he had been notified by its distributor that the beef, on hold at LP-A, was not from Westland Hallmark. He said the school would work the beef back into their menu in about a week.

"It was a precaution," Hogie said. "It started at the federal level with the United States Department of Agriculture, came to the State of Minnesota, and then individual superintendents received that notification."

Frazee-Vergas Schools Superintendent Deron Stender said Friday morning that the Minnesota Department of Education had a concrete process in place when it notified schools of the hold on the beef. He said they had put a hold on their beef, but were later notified that the district was off the list of schools with potential Westland beef.

Ted Heisserer, business manager for the Detroit Lakes School District, said the district does have some of the Westland beef in its warehouse.

"We do have some of the stuff, it's on hold in our warehouse, and we're just waiting further instruction from the State of Minnesota," he said.

Heisserer said the school has other products it can and is serving while the suspect beef is on hold.

The Minnesota Department of Education issued an update Thursday on the beef hold. The MDE had been able to narrow the list of schools that may have received the Westland beef from a list of 703 to 374. Of those 374 schools and organizations, 120 (including Detroit Lakes) currently have unused beef on hold.

The update also said the majority of Westland beef shipped to Minnesota had probably been served before the USDA hold advisory. The MDE said no illnesses have been reported in connection to the beef and there has been no evidence that the beef presents an increased health risk.

The MDE is working with the USDA to continue to compile information on how much of the beef may still be in the food distribution supply chain. The MDE is also waiting for the USDA's decision on the status of the beef and will keep superintendents up-to-date on the issue.

"We appreciate the cooperation and diligence of all of those who have helped us to identify and isolate this product," said the Thursday press release from the MDE.

"It is that kind of commitment that makes our school lunch programs safe and healthy."