Wednesday, February 09, 2000

Our kids deserve food that's safe

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I ate my first Gold Kist chicken nugget this week and lived to tell about it. But I worried about the school kids who make a steady diet of these chewy morsels, and wondered who's really looking out for them.

        Gold Kist is the Atlanta-based food processor under fire for allegedly putting diseased chunks of fowl into its chicken nuggets and selling them to schools in 31 states, including Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

        My chicken nuggets were Monday's lunchroom entree at Waycross Elementary in the Winton Woods City Schools district. To my adult palate, the nuggets were loaded with bits of white meat but had the consistency of chicken-flavored, art-gum erasers.

        The kids I saw in Waycross' cafeteria loved the nuggets. They wolfed them down, blissfully oblivious to a federal food safety inspector's claim that the nuggets contained chicken skin with “sores and bruises and things on it.”

        Connie Bauer, supervising cook for Waycross and four other elementary schools, told me “nuggets are the kids' second-favorite meal, next to pizza.” On pizza days, she sells 400 lunches at Waycross. On nugget days, it's 380, or 80 meals above the school's average.

        The cook has heard no complaints from her customers about the nuggets. The nuggets have not been linked to any outbreak of food poisoning. Not at Waycross. Not in any of the 31 states where they are served in schools.

        Still, the cook is not taking any chances. She's pulling the nuggets from the lunch-time lineup. “They're on the shelf until we find out what's going on.”

Henhouse guard
        As I walked through the brightly lit cafeteria and saw kids gobbling down their nuggets, I still wondered about the safety of the food they were eating.

        To find out, I talked with a number of dietitians, nutritionists, cooks and butchers. The most impassioned was Leslie Edwards. He's a retired meat inspector with 27 years of experience, three with the federal government, 24 with the state of Ohio.

        Based on what he's read about diseased chicken parts becoming nuggets, Leslie Edwards thinks they are not wholesome enough for our children. “I would not eat them,” he said.

        The retired inspector termed the claims against Gold Kist's chicken nuggets “a sign of a system being totally out of control.”

        He blamed the inspectors, the company and the federal government “for not maintaining quality standards.” He also took issue with the Department of Agriculture for implementing a program at Gold Kist in which the company conducted its own food inspections.

        “There's no accountability in that plan,” he said. “It's like letting the fox watch over the henhouse.”

        Leslie Edwards says inspectors must be especially vigilant overseeing the making of chicken nuggets. “You grind things to make nuggets. People with no integrity will be tempted to throw in all sorts of things to be ground up. A grinder can hide lots of sins.”

Call the schools
        Chicken nuggets are a government commodity food sold to schools at reduced prices. “Schools need this food,” said the retired inspector. “They are trying to make ends meet. They can't pay much. The company processing the food wants to make money. An inspector must be alert for the company trying to cheapen the product.”

        He reserved his compassion for the people dining on nuggets.

        “School kids eat these things. They're a captive group. They can't get up from the table and say: "We're not eating this. We're not buying this.'”

        But parents and school officials can.

        Connie Bauer's decision to stop serving the nuggets until further notice pleased the retired inspector.

        “Good move,” he said. “But it's only the beginning. Objections to this must go all the way up the ladder.”

        I agree. People like us, at the bottom of the ladder, must start pushing.

        Parents should call the schools. Officials at the schools should call state and federal employees in charge of the government commodities food program.

        Their message should be delivered in one voice: This food is unacceptable. Take it back. Refund our money. Come up with an alternative using higher standards. Our children deserve better.

        We care deeply about what children are taught in school, what goes into their heads. Looks like we will have to tap into that same concern over what goes into their stomachs.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.