The U.S. Department of Agriculture is recalling 143 million pounds of frozen beef in the wake of a video showing so-called downer cattle being prepared for slaughter at a California plant. The recall includes beef products produced after February 1, 2006 at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino.
A consumer group said the recall was the result of a "terrible failure" by the USDA and said consumers are losing confidence in the safety of the American food supply.
The release of the video earlier this month by the Humane Society of the U.S. triggered a USDA investigation of the plant and an immediate suspension of production.
Of particular concern is the fact the plant has been a major supplier of meat to the federal school lunch program. Congress has Lawmakers Call For Slaughterhouse Probe it is investigating the plant.
The recall was announced over the weekend after USDA investigators concluded the downer cattle were slaughtered, along with healthy cattle. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer says investigators uncovered evidence the plant violate numerous health regulations.
"USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has evidence that Hallmark/Westland did not consistently contact the FSIS public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with FSIS regulations," Schafer said. "Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection FSIS has determined them to be unfit for human food and the company is conducting a recall."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) noted that there have been more than 20 beef recalls in the last 20 months.
"This recall is the result of a terrible failure of the U.S. Department of Agricultures mandate since 1906 to ensure that sick animals are not slaughtered for human food. Once again, USDA is in reactive modetaking steps to protect the public long after a highly publicized animal welfare scandal," said CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal.
"Where were the inspectors, who should have been preventing downer cattle from entering the food supply? Where were the safeguards to make sure that meat from sick animals didnt end up on school lunch trays from coast to coast?" DeWaal asked. "Congress should demand answers and enact solutions.
"If we had a modern food safety system, slaughterhouse employees wouldnt dream of treating and transporting cattle in the horrible ways documented by the Humane Society - because they would know that federal inspectors on site wouldnt tolerate it," DeWaal said.
Mad cow disease
The slaughter of downer cattle set off alarm bells among investigators because not being able to walk is one of the symptoms of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease.
There are strict rules that are supposed to keep meat from infected cows out of cattle feed much less the human food supply. In addition, Schafer says the fact the cows weren't inspected raises all sorts of other alarming possibilities, including foodborne pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella.
"To date, Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company remains suspended by the Food Safety and Inspection Service," Schafer said. "The products destined for the Federal food assistance programs, including the National School Lunch Program, will now be removed from schools and other holding facilities and destroyed."
Schafer said it is extremely unlikely that the animals were at risk for BSE because of what he called multiple safeguards in the system. However, he said the action is necessary because plant procedures violated USDA regulations.
The request for a Congressional probe came in the form of a letter sent to the U.S. Government Accountability Office by U.S. Reps. George Miller (D-CA), Rosa Delauro (D-CT), and Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL).
"Along with all Americans who watched the Humane Society's disturbing videos, we are concerned with the mistreatment of animals at Westland Meat Co. We are writing today because of urgent concerns this incident raises about food safety in the National School Lunch Program and the implications for our children's health and well-being," the lawmakers wrote in their letter.
The Humane Society's footage showed employees using inhumane practices to force non-ambulatory cows to stand so that they would pass federal inspection in the slaughterhouse. Meat from non-ambulatory or "downer" cows presents a higher risk of E. coli, salmonella, and other dangers, and it is banned under federal law from entering the food supply.
The Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now investigating the company's abuses, and the company's production is currently suspended. The USDA, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, has also asked all schools to put beef products on hold until its investigation can determine whether unsafe meat entered the food supply.
Despite these steps by the USDA, the lawmakers cited serious concerns about the overall effectiveness of the federal government's effort to ensure the safety of meat on the school food supply. To date, no independent investigation has been launched into the safety of the schools' meat supply.
Miller is the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, which has jurisdiction over school nutrition programs, and McCarthy is the chair of the panel's Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities. Delauro is the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Durbin is a member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and is the author of several pieces of food safety legislation.
Massive Beef Recall Follows Mad Cow Scare...