Buyers left ‘holding the beef’

| 2/22/2008

The United States Department of Agriculture recently announced the largest-ever meat recall of more than 143 million pounds of beef products from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, CA.

Now many buyers of that recalled meat are left wondering, “What do we do with it now?”

At least 50.3 million pounds of the recalled meat went to federal nutrition programs, including school lunch programs across the country. Of that amount, the USDA confirmed that 19.6 million pounds of the recalled meat has already been consumed, according to Eric Steiner, associate administrator for Special Nutrition Programs for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

“We know that 15.2 million pounds are currently on hold. And we know that 15.5 million pounds are ‘actively being traced,’ ” Steiner said at a Feb. 21 press teleconference. “And these numbers will be updated as states are able to ascertain the location of the remainder of these products.”

The USDA issued the recall on Sunday, Feb. 17, based on new evidence the agency received that meat from at least one “downer” cow, which has been deemed too weak or lame, made it into the food supply chain.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s final rulemaking issued in July 2007 prohibits “the use of downer cattle from entering the food supply chain.”

And while buyers of this recalled meat, which includes school districts in 34 states, have been told to put the meat “on hold” and pull it from their menus, they are still waiting for further instructions from the USDA as to what to do with the recalled product now.

Ron Vogel, associate deputy administrator for Special Nutrition Programs, USDA Food and Nutrition Service, told Land Line on Thursday, Feb. 21, there is a plan to recover and destroy the remaining recalled product, but he didn’t go into specifics as to exactly what the plan entails.

“Yes, we do have a plan to recover and destroy this product in accordance with FSIS requirements,” Vogel said. “None of that product has been destroyed yet, but we will require documentation from state agencies and schools that the product has been in fact destroyed in accordance with FSIS requirements.”

Because the nature of the regulatory violation, all products from Hallmark/Westland have been deemed “unfit,” according to Dr. Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator, Office of Field Operations for USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

“There’s no way to make them fit,” Petersen said. “And so the only option is terminal destruction.”

Bill Sessions, associate deputy administrator for livestock and feed programs with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, said the USDA will “take a warranty action against Westland to try and recover some of these costs” associated with the massive beef recall.

“USDA will pursue every avenue available to us to reimburse the states for the cost of replacing the products that have to be destroyed, as well as the transportation of the product to the disposal sites, disposal fees and that sort of thing,” Sessions said.

Vogel said so far, disposal sites haven’t been set up yet for the recalled meat.

“Those sites will be determined in conjunction with state and local health officials,” he said. “That’s a process that will be handled.”

As for California state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, who heads the state’s Senate Select Committee on Foodborne Illness, he’s not waiting around for the USDA to come up with a plan to reimburse California schools. He’s developing his own plan.

Florez recently announced that he plans to introduce legislation soon that would allow California school districts to be reimbursed for beef bought from Westland.

California schools may have ordered as much as 7.4 million pounds of beef from the company since July 2007.

The Senate Select Committee on Foodborne Illnesses will meet with USDA representatives, the Humane Society, school districts and the California Department of Health Services, at 10 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 25, in Room 3191 of the California State Capitol to “see what can be done to address these serious food safety issues” to see if additional safeguards are needed to prevent future recalls.

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer