Animal-cruelty probe leads to US's biggest meat recall

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Feb 18, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – A California meatpacking company has issued the largest meat recall in US history—143.4 million pounds—after revelations that the firm mistreated cattle and violated the federal ban on putting disabled or "downer" cattle into the human food supply.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced yesterday that meat produced by Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. of Chino, Calif., over the past 2 years was unfit for human food because some cattle processed at the plant couldn't walk at the time of slaughter.

The recalled meat includes 37 million pounds sold to the USDA's school-lunch and other nutrition programs, according to news services. The USDA rated the recall as Class II, meaning there was only a "remote" chance that the meat would be harmful.

Protection from 'mad cow'
USDA banned the use of nonambulatory cattle for food after the nation's first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, was found in late 2003. The ban was modified last year, when the USDA said downer cattle could be used for food if a USDA veterinarian determined that the animal's condition was due to an acute injury rather than disease.

The recall stems from an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which on Jan 30 released video footage of Hallmark/Westland workers mistreating downer cattle to make them get up. Workers were shown spraying water on cattle, shocking them with cattle prods, and ramming them with a forklift.

In a question-and-answer statement yesterday, the USDA called the situation "an isolated instance of egregious violations to human handling requirements and the prohibition of non-ambulatory disabled cattle from entering the food supply."

USDA officials said the abused cattle had passed USDA ante-mortem inspections on the day of slaughter, but later became unable to walk. Under the rules, the company was required to notify the USDA so a veterinarian could re-inspect the disabled animals and determine if they should be barred from the food supply or assessed further.

Evidence gathered by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) showed that the company "did not consistently contact the FSIS public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became nonambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection," the USDA said in a news release.

The violations occurred "occasionally over the past two years," and therefore all beef products produced during that time were ruled unfit for consumption, the agency said.

After learning of the HSUS revelations, the FSIS suspended inspections at Hallmark/Westland on Feb 4. The plant will not be allowed to reopen until it has explained how the violations occurred and shown it has taken corrective steps, the agency said.

"I am dismayed at the inhumane handling of cattle that has resulted in the violation of food safety regulations at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said in a statement yesterday. He added that it was "extremely unlikely" that any of the cattle had BSE, because of other safeguards in place.

All the products subject to recall were sold to wholesale distributors, not retail stores, the USDA said. The products bear the establishment number "EST. 336" inside the USDA mark of inspection.

USDA officials said yesterday that much of the recalled meat probably has already been consumed, according to a report published today by the Chicago Tribune.

The USDA said recalled meat that was sold to federal nutrition programs must be destroyed and cannot be used as pet food. The agency promised to reimburse states for products that have to be destroyed and to help find replacement products.

After an investigation prompted by the HSUS video, a California prosecutor filed animal cruelty charges last week against two former Hallmark/Westland plant workers, according to the Tribune.

Public health value questioned
Craig Hedberg, PhD, a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, agreed that the risk of BSE contamination in any of the recalled meat is extremely low. But he added, "I think the real story is that the entire story is embarrassing to USDA and highlights an essential flaw in our inspection system. So to compensate, they seem to be taking an aggressive stance that seems to have little value for protecting the public's health."

Hedberg, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health, added, "Inspectors can only deal with what they observe. In this case, there were animal cruelty issues just outside the plant that had a bearing on the 'safety' of the meat coming out of the plant. Because the inspectors did not witness it, it went unchecked. The limitations of inspectors to detect E coli contamination are even bigger and better documented problems."

HSUS President Wayne Pacelle, commenting on the recall yesterday, said, "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 United States has had three BSE cases so far: one in Washington state in 2003, one in Texas in 2005, and one in Alabama in 2006. The Washington case was in a Canadian-born cow. The USDA said it has tested 759,000 cattle for the disease since June 2004.

See also:

Feb 17 USDA news release
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/Recall_005-2008_Release.pdf

Feb 17 statement by USDA Secretary Ed Schafer
http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=2008/02/0046.xml

Feb 17 USDA question-and-answer document
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/HallmarkWestland_QAs.pdf

Jan 30 statement by USDA Secretary Schafer on the violations at Hallmark/Westland
http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=2008/01/0025.xml

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