USDA initiates largest beef recall ever

| 2/20/2008

The United States Department of Agriculture recently announced the largest beef recall in U.S. history – more than 143 million pounds – based on new evidence the agency received in the past few days that meat from at least one “downer” cow did make its way into the food supply chain.

USDA Press Secretary Keith Williams told Land Line Magazine that the recall wasn’t issued because of a potential threat of E.coli contamination from eating the meat from potentially lame or weak cattle, known as “downer” cows, but rather because the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. violated specific procedures when handling these cows.

“We came across evidence in the past few days that indicated that there was indeed a cow that had been down and couldn’t get back up and that they (Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company) then killed it … and it went on through the process,” Williams said.

The normal procedures at the beginning of each day at a slaughterhouse are that USDA veterinarians review all of the cattle that arrive either by truck or train and then mark which cows they view as suspicious of either being lame or weak.

Those cows could be diseased. If a cow goes down during the day, the packing company is supposed to report it to the USDA veterinarian, who is then supposed to come back out and inspect the animal.

Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer announced in a press release this week that the prohibition of non-ambulatory cattle from the food supply is an additional safeguard against bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

In at least one instance, the USDA found that Hallmark/Westland failed to report to the USDA veterinarian assigned to their facility that a cow went down during the day. Downed cows are supposed to be sent to a rendering plant, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s final rulemaking issued in July 2007. This rule prohibits the use of downer cattle from entering the food supply chain.

“This is where they violated the law, and that’s why we could go ahead and say we are going to do a recall on all of these (products),” Williams said.

“They violated federal regulations; they jumped the hoop. We are essentially revoking the USDA’s seal of inspection that was on any of the meat that was produced for two years. The reason we are going two years, even though we know that would create the headline of ‘largest recall ever’ is that we want to draw a large perimeter around the issue – focus in and narrow in from there.”

Hallmark/Westland has been shut down now for 21 days. They were the USDA’s second-largest supplier of meat to the federal school lunch program. Right now, the USDA’s plan for school districts with frozen meat affected by the recall is to swap it with new meat. Some of the meat has already been consumed by schoolchildren in the U.S.

“The USDA does not tolerate any deviation from our regulations,” Williams said. “This recall was done because of a violation of a procedure, not because of food.”

Schafer said he was dismayed at the inhumane handling of cattle that has “resulted in the violation of food safety regulations at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company.”

“It is extremely unlikely that these animals were at risk for BSE because of the multiple safeguards; however, this action is necessary because plant procedures violated USDA regulations,” Schafer said in the release.

Last year, more than 33 million pounds of ground beef products was recalled in the U.S., mainly because of potential E.coli contamination.

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer