In the early days of September, as military helicopters plucked desperate New Orleanians from rooftops and Red Cross shelters swelled with the displaced, nearly 400,000 packaged meals landed on a tarmac at Little Rock Air Force Base and were whisked by tractor-trailer to Louisiana.
But most of the $5.3 million worth of food never reached the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Instead, because of fears about mad cow disease and a long-standing ban on British beef, the rations routinely consumed by British soldiers have sat stacked in a warehouse in Arkansas for more than a month.
Now, with some of the food set to expire in early 2006 and U.S. taxpayers spending $16,000 a month to store the meals, the State Department is quickly and quietly looking for a needy country to take them.
In a disaster recovery effort that has been widely criticized as slow, inefficient and at times wasteful, the long and costly journey of the British rations is a tale of good intentions colliding with a cumbersome bureaucracy.
Disagreement where responsibility lies
No fewer than six federal agencies or departments had a role in accepting, distributing and rejecting the food. Even now, there remains a disagreement within the Bush administration over which office shipped the meals to 14 locations in Louisiana and which is responsible for paying the mounting storage fees.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees domestic disasters, "knew from e-mails the stuff was moving out there, but we never had control or said anything about it," said spokesman Kim Pease. "It was under control of" the U.S. Agency for International Development, he said.
But USAID spokesman Kevin Sheridan said his agency simply provided logistic support, helping deliver to the Gulf Coast region foreign donations that were acquired by the State Department.
A spokesman for the British Embassy, citing diplomatic protocol in requesting anonymity, said he was puzzled by the turn of events.
"There was a specific request for emergency ration packs, and we responded to that," he said. "We had no reason to believe there would be a problem."
What is clear is that by late on Sept. 8, inspectors from the Agriculture Department halted the distribution because the packaged meals violated import laws that "no beef or poultry of any kind is accepted from Great Britain," spokeswoman Terri Teuber said.
Since 1997, the United States has banned beef products from Britain and several other European countries that have been affected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease. A degenerative disease of the central nervous system, BSE is fatal in cattle and can lead to a similar illness in humans called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
"There was a careful review of the law to determine whether there was some flexibility, and at this point that has not been the case," Teuber said.
At the same time, it appeared the urgent need for food had subsided as evacuees reached shelters and other locations with electricity and supplies, she said. "There is no question that different consideration would have been given to the situation if people were going hungry," Teuber added.
The journey began early on Sept. 5, as the first packs, stacked six feet high and loaded onto pallets, left Brize Norton air base in Oxfordshire, England. Aboard chartered aircraft, they were flown 4,400 miles to Arkansas at a cost of $4.7 million, according to the British Embassy.
A wire service photographer documented the arrival that same day, one week after Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast, said Lt. Jon Quinlan, a base spokesman.
In a conference call Sept. 6, USDA officials learned that "food donations may be coming that needed inspection," Teuber said. But confirmation didn't reach them until Sept. 8, three days after the first shipment touched down.
Trucks turned around
As the rations rode 355 more miles to New Orleans, USDA inspectors hit the road -- literally chasing the delivery trucks to shelters, the city's downtown convention center and other locations where evacuees were found.
Severe flooding prevented inspectors from reaching four sites, and by the time they arrived at the 10 others, about 115,000 meal packs had been distributed. Some were vegetarian, satisfying the Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over nonmeat imports, spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said.
The others, with meat in them, should not have been handed out, Teuber said.
"We didn't want to distribute food that's not approved on a daily basis for American consumption to those impacted by the hurricanes," she said.
The inspectors turned the trucks around for the return trip to Arkansas, where the meals remain.
State Department officials have considered sending the food to Guatemala, which was devastated by mudslides. But the impoverished country does not have vehicles to transport the enormous pallets. For cultural reasons, the meals would be inappropriate for Pakistani earthquake victims.
"Everyone wants a happy ending," said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity, given the already bruised feelings in Britain. "No one wants them to go to waste. Everyone wants them to be put to good use."