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Technology & Entrepreneurship

USDA's Inaccurate Health Alert Sows More Confusion In Texas

Volunteers from Cornerstone Church load cars in its June 20 food distribution
Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Volunteers from Cornerstone Church load cars in its June 20 food distribution

Updated 2:52 p.m. 7/9/2020

The USDA issued a health alert Wednesday night for boxes of pre-cooked chicken given away in San Antonio on June 29 to families in need. Sixteen hours later the USDA said it was actually distributed in the Ft. Worth area.

Soy was in the meal, but excluded from the ingredients list, creating a health problem for those with allergies. Soy allergies are present in about 1.1% of the general public, according to a 1993 survey, and most prevalent among infants. Deaths from allergic reactions are rare.

The advisory from USDA causes as many questions as it answers, and those answers are hard to come by. 

About 16,800 pounds of the chicken product was given out — product the USDA instructed people with soy allergies to destroy. 

The release doesn’t list where it was given out, which could help people determine if they received it. Who distributed the food? What program the food was purchased under? Who purchased it? And most importantly who received it were all left unanswered by USDA and manufacturer BrucePac as of Thursday morning.

The USDA says the chicken was given away in San Antonio from a “food bank program.” But San Antonio Food Bank directors say the first time they heard about it was from TPR. 

They don’t have any record of receiving or distributing the chicken. 

“It’s weird,” said Eric Cooper, president of the food bank referring to the lack of details in the Public Health Advisory. 

Because of the quick nature of issuing a health release, USDA officials said they put out the information they had when they could. Now they are saying that information was inaccurate, and that food was distributed in Ft. Worth.

“We haven’t heard anything about the alert,” said Rudy Taylor, Chief Operating Officer for the Ft. Worth Community Food Bank.  

Unlike the massive Tarrant Area food bank, the Community Food Bank is more of a pantry and isn’t associated with Feeding America, the national network.

Taylor said they received a shipment of chicken from CRE8AD8 on June 26, not June 29 as the USDA previously stated. The chicken likely was distributed the same day. According to Taylor, the need in the community is high. 

CRE8AD8 is a San Antonio wedding and event planning company that was awarded $39 million under the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. It has been criticized for failing to deliver on that contract to feed hungry Texans. CRE8AD8 did purchase pre-cooked chicken from manufacturer BrucePac, but it has not responded to numerous emails and phone calls.

It isn’t clear if Ft. Worth Community Food Bank is the one USDA was talking about because even in correcting itself, it didn’t elaborate on who received the chicken. 

“No one has had any complaints about the food whatsoever,” said Taylor, who praised the program.

Cooper said if the San Antonio Food Bank — or any in the Feeding America system — had distributed this product, it would have had names and phone numbers. Hist staff could have contacted consumers directly.

Cooper said the food likely went through Farmers to Families directly to a nonprofits like Ft. Worth Community, excluding the more sophisticated Feeding America system. 

Unlike the Feeding America system, nonprofits using the Farmers to Families program aren’t required to collect personal details which is unlike most USDA programs.

“So they don’t even know who they gave the food to and therefore can’t communicate this health advisory to those consumers,” said Cooper.

The program allows any nonprofit to request food regardless of their experience in distribution. 

The health alert said no adverse cases have been reported, but it isn’t clear if people knew where to report it, especially given the initial error. 

At least two churches in San Antonio have utilized Farmers to Families to provide food. Oak Hills Church on the city’s far northwest side gave away food in mid June. They were assisted by the San Antonio Food Bank and did collect names and phone numbers. Cornerstone Church acted independently and at its June 20 distribution did not collect them. 

Ft. Worth Community Food Bank does track who receives food and they could communicate directly with clients who took the chicken. But they haven’t been contacted by USDA, and they don’t know if they are the ones who distributed the food.

Farmers to Families received a lot of attention for its work across the country and has been heralded as a success by USDA and White House officials, providing more than 31 million food boxes. 

“We asked for public input and received a good response,” said Sonny Perdue, secretary of Agriculture in a release Thursday, announcing the expansion of the program. 

CRE8AD8 food boxes at the Cornerstone Church June 20 distribution.
Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
CRE8AD8 food boxes at the Cornerstone Church June 20 distribution.

The program’s story in Texas isn’t as heralded.

A $39 million contract — the largest contract solely for the Southwest — was given to CRE8AD8 to procure food for food banks and other nonprofits. As detailed by the San Antonio Express-News and TPR, it failed to fulfill the contract. It left food banks across the state and region scrambling to make up the difference at a time of unprecedented need. The company was one of only 5% of companies whose contract wasn’t extended by the USDA at the end of June.  

If the food was purchased under Farmers to Families in Texas it is likely that CRE8AD8 was involved. 

When company owner Gregario Palomino was asked if CRE8AD8 provided the chicken, he declined to say. 

“Please reach out to the contacts listed as per the release,” he replied in an email.

USDA said there will be no food recall for the chicken. This is not a product BrucePac sells commercially, implying it was made specifically for the USDA vendor that bought it. 

The proximity to the end of the month — the end of CRE8AD8’s contract — raises the question: was safety compromised for speed? 

If so, another delivery could be completed and another invoice could be paid to CRE8AD8.

This most recent mistake in alerting the public highlights issues of accountability for Farmers to Families raised by program critics.

And it raises more questions that no one seems interested in answering. 

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.