Updated 4:30 p.m.
The chicken withdrawn from city school kitchens earlier this month is now part of a nationwide Class 1 recall announced on Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which characterizes the health risk as “high.”
Meanwhile, City Limits has learned that the city Department of Education has removed Schwan’s pizza slices from school menus for the fourth time in a year after a new round of complaints about possible contamination.
USDA announced that Oklahoma City-based OK Foods was “recalling approximately 933,272 pounds of breaded chicken products that may be contaminated with extraneous materials, specifically metal.”
On the list of products covered by the recall was the Chickentopia tender that supplier Somma Foods withdrew from New York City school kitchens earlier this month after a student found a piece of metal in a tender.
Recalls are not uncommon. This is the 13th so far in March, according to the USDA website. However, not all recalls are categorized as class 1, meaning “This is a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.”
A USDA statement released Thursday said: “The problem was discovered on March 21, 2017 after OK Foods Inc. received five consumer complaints stating that metal objects were found in the ready-to-eat chicken products and by FSIS inspection personnel during verification activities.”
According to emails obtained by City Limits, Somma Foods instructed city schools to stop using the chicken on March 9 after the student encountered the metal. SchoolFood says that problem was reported to the New York State Education Department Child Nutrition Office, which oversees school food programs in the Empire State on behalf of the USDA.
According to a spokesperson for Somma, Gene Grabowski, the lone New York City incident is the only one of which Somma is aware. However, OK Food supplies other companies. Somma merely packages and does not process the chicken, according to Grabowski.
“This is an isolated incident,” Grabowski says. Fragment issues do sometimes affect processed foods, he adds. Grabowski stresses there is no tampering or other contamination involved, and there have been no reported injuries. “There’s no food safety issue, per se,” he says.
The USDA statement says OK Foods believes the metal came from a conveyer belt at the OK Foods plant.
“There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about an injury or illness should contact a healthcare provider,” USDA added. “Consumers who have purchased these products are urged not to consume them. These products should be thrown away or returned to the place of purchase.”
Grabowski says OK Foods, not the USDA, initiated the recall. All the Somma chicken was removed from city schools before the recall order and is being tested. No other fragments have been found, he says, but that batch of chicken will be destroyed. Somma this week hired a director of food safety and quality assurance. The chicken is marketed as antibiotic free, vegetable-fed and humanely raised.
Somma Foods chicken was previously removed from New York City schools in November after a few students found bone fragments and blue plastic in chicken tenders, and after a SchoolFood staffer choked on a bone in a tender and had to be rescued. Somma appears to have been using a different chicken supplier at the time of the earlier incident.
Schwan’s Red Baron pizza slices were first pulled off the lunch line last May when reports of mold came in. They were returned in August, yanked again after another report of mold in September, put back in circulation in October and then pulled again in November. The company has said the problem wasn’t mold but discoloration.
But in an email sent through the school food system on Monday, a DOE staffer wrote, “Due to a quality concern, [SchoolFood] is requesting that Slice Pizza BF FS 165 (Red Baron) should not be delivered to schools the product is to be placed on hold until further notice.”
Chuck Blomberg, a spokesperson for Schwan’s, told City Limits: “We received a small number of reports of discoloration on a pizza item that we supply specifically to the New York City school district. Based on a visual examination of the product by our food safety and quality experts, there has been no indication that this is a food safety issue.”
“However, we take great pride in the quality of our foods and we are working with the district to withdraw this product from the market,” he continued. “This particular product is made only for the New York City school district. No other food items are involved.”
Schwan’s has a five-year, $36 million contract with DOE. Somma is paid via the distribution companies that collect and deliver food to city schools, so its earnings from the school system, which it began supplying last year, were not available at press time.