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By W. Gardner Selby February 19, 2010

Kinky Friedman says Texas agriculture commissioner allowed tainted beef to reach school cafeterias

Kinky Friedman, seeking the Democratic nod for state agriculture commissioner, suggests the Republican incumbent, Todd Staples, let down his guard a couple years ago.

Responding to a question from the League of Women Voters of Texas, Friedman said: "The current commissioner allowed tainted beef to be sent to school cafeterias."

His stomach-churning charge drew our attention.

The candidate’s campaign pointed us to a February 2008 press release issued by Staples giving clearance to school districts to comply with a nationwide recall of more than 765,000 pounds of tainted beef. The release states: "Currently, 462 Texas school districts and other entities enrolled in the school breakfast and lunch programs have reported to have meat on hold and now can begin the disposal process."

The release doesn’t say if or how Staples allowed the tainted beef get to Texas schools. But Friedman spokesman Jason Stanford said it shows "this was allowed to happen on Staples’ watch."

We wondered what role the Texas Department of Agriculture plays in determining what foods get delivered for school meals.

Staples’ spokesman Bryan Black confirmed that the Texas department distributes food commodities purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Black conceded too those deliveries would have included the beef that was later targeted for disposal.

Yet Black insisted that nothing in state law permits the commissioner to tell districts what foods to order or not.

His point: Staples couldn't have stopped--or disallowed--schools from taking the beef; the state department is responsible only for ensuring that food ordered through the USDA's commodity program--whatever the foods are--gets delivered.

Spokeswoman Jean Daniel of the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, which administers USDA's food nutrition programs, echoed Black's claim.

Daniel said state officials such as the Texas agriculture commissioner don't determine which suppliers provide food either through federally purchased commodities, which account for 15 to 20 percent of the food in school meals nationwide, or local purchases from commercial suppliers, handled by school districts. Daniel said she didn't know of any instance of a state-level official intervening in school district food purchases unless they were alerted to a recall.

In 2008, Black said, Staples acted because the federal government told states that the beef was unfit for human consumption. The state agency helped ensure the disposal of the beef and reimbursements to districts.

It's true that the Texas agriculture commissioner is responsible for overseeing the distribution of federal commodities for school meal programs.

But we found no evidence that Staples had the authority to allow districts to get the bad beef.

We rate Friedman's statement as False.

Our Sources

E-mails, Jason Stanford, Kinky Friedman campaign, Feb. 16 and 18, 2010

E-mails and interview, Bryan Black, assistant commissioner for communications, Texas Department of Agriculture, Feb. 17 and 19, 2010

Interview, Jean Daniel, public affairs director, U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, Feb. 18, 2010

League of Women Voters of Texas, Voter Guide, February 2010

Texas Department of Agriculture, press release, "Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples Gives Texas Schools Clearance To Dispose Recalled Beef," Feb. 21, 2008

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Recall Release, Feb. 17, 2008

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Kinky Friedman says Texas agriculture commissioner allowed tainted beef to reach school cafeterias

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