Largest beef recall in history has industry reeling

by Staff
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WASHINGTON ― Already rocked by a huge spike in E. coli-related ground beef recalls during the past year, the U.S. meat industry is reeling in the wake of the Feb. 17 Food Safety and Inspection Service announcement that Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., Chino, Calif., is voluntarily recalling approximately 143,383,823 pounds of raw and frozen beef products that the F.S.I.S. has determined to be unfit for human food because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection. This is the largest beef recall in history.

All products produced since Feb. 1, 2006 are being recalled. "[On Feb. 17], U.S.D.A. is announcing additional actions as a result of the ongoing investigation at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company," Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said on Sunday. "U.S.D.A.'s Food Safety and Inspection Service has evidence that Hallmark/Westland did not consistently contact the F.S.I.S public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with F.S.I.S. regulations. Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection, F.S.I.S. has determined them to be unfit for human food and the company is conducting a recall.

"It is extremely unlikely that these animals were at risk for bovine spongiform encephalopathy [B.S.E.] because of the multiple safeguards; however, this action is necessary because plant procedures violated U.S.D.A. regulations," Mr. Schafer added.

Downer cattle at processing plants require an F.S.I.S. veterinarian reassess the non-ambulatory cattle, which are either condemned and prohibited from the food supply, or tagged as suspect. Suspect cattle receive a more thorough inspection after slaughter than is customary. This noncompliant activity occurred occasionally over the past two years and therefore all beef product produced during the period of time for which evidence indicates such activity occurred has been determined by F.S.I.S. to be unfit for human consumption, and is, therefore, adulterated.

The F.S.I.S. had already suspended inspection at Hallmark/Westland Meat Company, Chino, Calif., on Feb. 4 based on the company’s violation of federal regulations and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This case was announced after a videotape surfaced that showed various abuses by two employees against downer cattle.

Both accused employees have since been identified and terminated and a supervisor has been suspended pending further investigation. Most recently, authorities charged one of the fired workers with five felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanors. The other fired employee was charged with three misdemeanor counts. The misdemeanors allege illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal. (See accompanying article in today’s news for more details.)

"At the time allegations were revealed on Jan. 30, Westland Meat Company voluntarily stopped operations on Feb. 1," said Dr. Richard Raymond, U.S.D.A. undersecretary of food safety, when the case was first announced. "The U.S.D.A. suspension will remain in effect and the Westland Meat Company will not be allowed to operate until written corrective actions are submitted and verified by F.S.I.S. to ensure that animals are humanely handled."

Some of the Westland Meat Co. branded products were purchased for Federal food and nutrition programs and, since Jan. 30, 2008, U.S.D.A. has had an administrative hold on all products from Westland Meat Co. in all of these outlets including, in the National School Lunch Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Assistance Program on Indian Reservations.

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