The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Recent Beef Recall

Recent Beef Recall

Food Safety Update

February 24, 2008

Recent Beef Recall
Last week, the USDA recalled 143 million pounds of beef, making it the largest beef recall in U.S. history since 1999, when 35 million pounds of beef possibly contaminated with listeria were removed from stores. No cases of illness have yet been associated with the current recall, and investigators say the risk of illness is small.
The recalled meat comes from the Southern California Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., and dates back to February 1, 2006. Meat from the plant went to several federal programs, including those supplying school lunches and low-income families, as well as to fast food establishments. Unfortunately, much of the recalled beef has likely been consumed already.
The recalls were prompted by undercover footage taken by the Human Society showing workers abusing “downer” cattle (cows that can’t walk) on the way to slaughter. Sick cattle are usually removed from the food supply because their immune systems are weaker, which puts them at greater risk for contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease. At least 12 of the 15 identified cases of mad cow disease in North America to date have reportedly involved downer, or non-ambulatory animals.
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) typically performs cattle inspections on the day of slaughter, but if an animal becomes non-ambulatory following the inspection, plant personnel is required to notify the FSIS for a repeat examination. Public Health Veterinarians are also required to inspect holding pens on the day of slaughter, and randomly return to observe specific human handling activities at other times throughout the production chain.
Once the USDA was shown the undercover footage taken at Westland/Hallmark, an investigation began. The FSIS then obtained evidence showing that the plant occasionally slaughtered cattle that passed inspection, and then became non-ambulatory prior to entering the slaughterhouse – in obvious violation of FSIS regulations. A Notice of Suspension was issued to the plant on February 4, 2008, and will remain in effect until corrective actions are submitted and verified by FSIS.
FSIS believes this to be an isolated incident. However, in 2007, FSIS did issue 20 meat recalls and 66 suspensions to federally inspected establishments. Eighteen percent of those suspensions resulted from humane handling violations, though none to the degree of those witnessed at Westland/Hallmark. According to reports, downer cows that were considered unfit for slaughter at plants in other states may have been shipped to Westland/Hallmark.
Humane Society President & CEO Wayne Pacelle stated, "A recall of this staggering scale shows it's bad for animals, bad for consumers, and bad for business to have slipshod enforcement and porous laws when it comes to handling animals at slaughter plants."
The recall is considered “Class II,” meaning that there is a remote possibility that the beef in the recall could make someone sick. Still, as with any recall, consumers are now asking questions about the USDA’s ability to effectively protect them from future contamination in the food supply. But the USDA insists that what happened at Westland/Hallmark is the exception, not the rule.
While Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, has called on the agency to toughen their inspection requirements, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says that the beef supply is safe, even as they support the USDA’s recall as a precautionary measure. They point out that they have multiple interlocking safeguards in place in every beef processing plant in America.
“As an organization representing beef producers, we have two expectations when our cattle leave our farms and ranches: that our animals are treated humanely and that every step is taken to produce safe beef,” says James O. Reagan, Ph.D. Chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council. “We can say with confidence that the beef supply is safe.”