February 18, 2008

USDA Orders Largest Ever Beef Recall

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a recall yesterday of 143 million pounds of beef from Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. of Chino, California, after the beef was determined to be unfit for human consumption because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection.  The recall includes frozen beef products from the company dating back to February 1, 2006.

The beef recall is the largest in U.S. history, surpassing a 1999 ban of 35 million pounds of ready-to-eat meats thought to be contaminated with listeria.

Officials said Hallmark/Westland had allowed meat from cattle unable to stand at the time of slaughter to enter the food chain.  Such "downer" cattle are at greater risk of contamination by E. coli, salmonella or contracting mad cow disease, as they have weaker immune systems and greater contact with feces than standing cattle.

Earlier this month, authorities suspended after an undercover video surfaced which showed sick and crippled animals being prodded with the blades of a forklift truck, kicked, given electric shocks and sprayed with high-pressure water hoses by staff in an effort to get them to their feet before slaughter.

The meat-packing plant is currently the subject of an animal cruelty investigation, and last Friday California prosecutors charged two former Hallmark/Westland employees with animal cruelty.  At this time, no charges have been filed against Hallmark/Westland, but the USDA investigation continues.

"A recall of this staggering scale proves that it's past time for Congress and the USDA to strengthen our laws for the sake of people and animals," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the U.S. Humane Society.

The USDA classified the recall as Class 2, meaning there is a remote probability that the beef could be harmful if consumed, but said authorities had found no cases of illness linked to the newly recalled meat.

"We don't know how much product is out there right now. We don't think there is a health hazard, but we do have to take this action," Dick Raymond, USDA undersecretary for food safety, told Associated Press.

Officials said most of the recalled meat has likely been eaten already.  They reported that 37 million pounds of the beef had gone to school lunch and other federal nutrition programs, while some was also supplied to major fast-food chains.

In a statement by Agriculture Secretary Ed Shafer, he said he had been "dismayed by the inhumane handling of cattle" that resulted in the violation of food safety regulations at Westland/Hallmark.

"It is extremely unlikely that these animals were at risk for BSE [mad cow disease] because of the multiple safeguards; however this action is necessary because plant procedures violated USDA regulations," he added.  
A February 3rd statement issued by Hallmark/Westland president Steve Mendell said the company is co-operating with the USDA and called the practices shown in the video as "a serious breach of our company's policies and training".

"We have taken swift action regarding the two employees identified on the video and have already implemented aggressive measures to ensure all employees follow our humane handling policies and procedures."


On the Net:


US Department of Agriculture

Humane Society of the United States

BBC News