With Tainted Turkey, Recalls Hit Harvard

A string of large-scale meat recalls this fall has reached the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), a spokesperson for Harvard University Dining Service (HUDS) said yesterday.

Sebastian’s Cafe at HSPH was notified by one of its vendors that it had received 20 pounds of turkey which may have been tainted and had been recalled as part of two massive meat recalls in the last month, HUDS spokesperson Alexandra McNitt wrote in an e-mail.

“We were notified by our supplier that there was a recall on the product,” McNitt wrote. “We pulled the product out of our inventory, trashed it, and [we] will be reimbursed for it.”

McNitt said the meat was not served before HUDS was notified of the recall.

In recent weeks, both Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation—doing business as Wampler Foods—and Jack Lambersky Poultry Company Inc.—doing business as J.L. Foods Company Inc.—have been the focus of a nation-wide meat recall. In the largest recall ever, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation recalled approximately 27.4 million pounds of fresh and frozen meat products that may be contaminated with the potentially deadly bacteria, listeria.

The Sebastian’s Cafe meat was the only HUDS supply affected by the recalls and HUDS Executive Director Ted A. Mayer said he wanted to assure Harvard diners that their food was free of the listeria strain that has been blamed for at least seven deaths and dozens of illnesses in the northeast.

“We take [food safety] very, very, very seriously,” Mayer said. “This is serious business.”

Mayer said HUDS goes to great lengths to ensure the safety of the students it serves, including regular sanitary inspections, and temperature monitoring of refrigeration units and the food in the serving lines.

Mayer also said HUDS’ entire management staff and a large percentage of its hourly workforce are certified by the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe food safety training program.

A number of HUDS vendors adhere to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), a food safety program adopted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that focuses on preventing hazards that could cause foodborne illnesses, Mayer said.

Former Secretary of Agriculture Daniel R. Glickman, who is now director of the Institute of Politics (IOP), said HACCP is an important way of ensuring food safety.

“I would hope that Harvard and its suppliers do, in fact, follow those mechanisms,” Glickman said.

While Mayer said HUDS does not, in fact, strictly follow the HACCP method, he said HUDS does adhere to all of the elements of the recommended process.

Although HUDS largely focuses on preventing foodborne illnesses, Mayer also said HUDS has an “elaborate protocol” designed to deal with suspected cases of foodborne illness.

When three or more students from a particular area report to University Health Services (UHS) or local hospitals with gastroenteritis, HUDS begins an extensive investigation of how the illness was contracted, which may or may not lead back to Harvard, Mayer said.

HUDS’ protocol mandates that the dining area in question is temporarily closed and Harvard’s Environmental Health and Safety and City Inspectional Services thoroughly inspect the facility, review recent menu offerings and temperature logs, in addition to interviewing the afflicted individuals to determine whether there is a pattern of consumption among them, McNitt wrote.

“This is what happened last year at Dunster-Mather,” Mayer said. “We voluntarily closed the dining hall because we did not want tainting.”

In that case, Mayer said, the illnesses which afflicted dozens of students last winter were not conclusively linked to HUDS, and are believed to have been viral infections.

In any case Harvard is fortunate not to have been the purveyor of foodborne illnesses, as Glickman said ensuring food safety is a difficult task, even for the most stringent institutions.

“Food safety is complicated,” Glickman said.

Glickman said he is particularly concerned about the recent outbreak of listeria in deli meat—which has led to hospitalizations, miscarriages and deaths—because the bacteria is not removed by proper cooking, as most consumers do not cook the ready-to-eat products being recalled.

“Listeria is a much tougher pathogen than some others,” Glickman said. “It worries me a lot.”

Glickman said listeria outbreaks appear to be on the rise, while cases of E. coli and Salmonella seem to be declining.

Although it is unclear exactly what caused the listeria outbreak, Glickman said listeria can be caused by improper cooking or unsanitary conditions.

“[These recent recalls] call into question whether poultry companies are properly complying with USDA food safety requirements,” Glickman said. “You would hope nobody is cutting corners.”