USDA Announces Largest Ever Beef Recall

(Los Angeles Times) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the largest beef recall in its history Sunday, calling for the destruction of 143 million pounds of raw and frozen beef produced by a Chino slaughterhouse that has been accused of inhumane practices.

However, the USDA said the vast majority of the meat involved in the recall -- including 37 million pounds that went mostly to schools -- probably has been eaten already. Officials emphasized that danger to consumers was minimal.

The recall applies to beef slaughtered at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. since Feb. 1, 2006. The company has produced no meet since Feb. 2, 2008, when operations were suspended.

The action came nearly three weeks after the Humane Society of the United States released a video showing workers at the plant using forklifts and water hoses, among other methods, to rouse cattle too weak to walk to slaughter. In addition to issues of animal cruelty, the video raised questions about whether so-called "downer cattle" were entering the food chain in violation of federal regulations.

Although the Humane Society said at least four non-ambulatory cattle had been slaughtered for food, the USDA had repeatedly said it had no such evidence. On Sunday, federal Agriculture officials said for the first time that they had evidence such cattle from Hallmark had been processed for food.

"Downer" cattle are not supposed to be used as meat unless a veterinarian determines that an amimal stumbled or fell because of injury -- a broken leg, for instance -- that would not affect the safety of their meat. Cattle weakened by disease are not supposed to enter the food supply, although the risk of harm to humans is still fairly low. There is, however, a slightly higher possibility that such cattle are suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as Mad Cow Disease.

The USDA said there was only a remote possibility that the recalled beef from Hallmark could make people sick. Agriculture Secty. Ed Schafer said it was "extremely unlikely" that any cattle processed at the plant were suffering from Mad Cow Disease.

Steve Mendell, president of Hallmark Meat Packing and its distributor, Westland, declined to comment. The company has refused to answer questions about its practices since the Humane Society video first surfaced. Mendell did release a statement on Feb. 3 saying he was "shocked and horrified" by the video, and insisting that the company had a long history of meeting federal safety standards.

Technically, the recall was initiated voluntarily by the company, because the federal government does not have the authority to do so.

Some supermarkets immediately began removing Hallmark meat from their freezer shelves.

Because Hallmark/Westland suspended operations Feb. 4, it is unlikely that any of its fresh meat is still being sold. "That has a very (short) shelf life and refrigerator life, so the great majority has probably been consumed," said Richard Raymond, under secretary for food safety, in a briefing with reporters.

Hallmark/Westland meat was also sold to restaurant chains, including In-N-Out Burger and Jack in the Box, but both of those companies said they stopped using it early this month after the first reports of problems at the plant.

The amount of beef affected by the recall may be far larger than 143 million pounds because meat from different companies is often mixed as it goes through numerous processors. Such mixing makes it extremely difficult for consumers to know whether meat products came from the plant.

At a USDA telephone briefing Sunday for retailers, school districts and food safety experts, a Costco representative raised concerns about beef that gets "commingled," according to Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle, who was on the conference call. He said the Costco representative estimated that the total beef recalled may top a billion pounds.

USDA officials said the whole impact from the recall was difficult to estimate because beef from Hallmark was supplied through a "huge pipeline" including numerous processors and distributors.

As an example, Bill Sessions of the Agricultural Marketing Service told reporters: "Coarse ground beef ... goes into further processors, who make end items such as cooked hamburger patties, chili meat, taco meat, that type of thing, that then goes into a distributor and then is distributed to a local school system."

By that time, the food packaging is not likely to carry any indication that a portion of the meat came from Hallmark/Westland.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who has been closely following the Hallmark case, called Sunday for a congressional hearing into the USDA's inspection process. Miller, who last week urged the Government Accountability Office to conduct independent investigations into the matter, said the "severity of this issue for both our nation's schools and consumers" made it necessary for Congress to step in.

One consumer advocate questioned whether the likelihood of danger from the recalled meat was as low as the USDA claimed. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer advocacy and research organization, said federal regulators "really don't know what conditions were making the cattle sick." Given that, she said, "it is still possible some of them carried illnesses that pose a risk to the public."

DeWaal said the recall "really underscores the fact that consumers are losing confidence in the ability of the USDA to protect them from unsafe meat."

James O. Reagan, the chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council, issued a statement saying his organization supported the recall. "At the same time," he added, "we can say with confidence that the beef supply is safe." He said there were "multiple interlocking safeguards" in every beef processing plant so that a single lapse would not endanger consumers.

Times staff writers Greg Krikorian, Evelyn Larrubia and Carla Rivera contributed to this report.

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