The U.S. Department of Agriculture has ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of frozen beef from a California slaughterhouse that provided meat to school lunch programs and is the subject of an animal-abuse investigation.
Officials said it was the largest beef recall in the United States, surpassing a 1999 ban of 35 million pounds of ready-to-eat meats. No illnesses have been linked to the newly recalled meat, and officials said the health threat was likely small.
The recall will affect beef products dating back two years to Feb. 1, 2006, that came from Chino, Calif.-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., the federal agency said.
Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said his department has evidence that Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cattle became non-ambulatory after passing inspection, violating health regulations.
“Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection, Food Safety and Inspection Service has determined them to be unfit for human food and the company is conducting a recall,” Mr. Schafer said in a Feb. 17 statement announcing the recall.
Federal officials suspended operations last month at Westland/Hallmark after an undercover video from the Humane Society of the United States surfaced showing crippled and sick animals being shoved with forklifts.
Two former employees were charged on Feb. 15. Five felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanors were filed against a pen manager. Three misdemeanor counts—illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal—were filed against an employee who worked under that manager. Both were fired.
Authorities said the video showed workers kicking, shocking, and otherwise abusing “downer” animals that were apparently too sick or injured to walk into the slaughterhouse. Some animals had water forced down their throats, San Bernardino County prosecutor Michael Ramos said.
No charges have been filed against Westland, but an investigation by federal authorities continues. Officials estimate that about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school programs, but they believe most of the meat probably has already been eaten.
“We don’t know how much product is out there right now. We don’t think there is a health hazard, but we do have to take this action,” said Dick Raymond, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety.
Most of the beef was sent to distribution centers in bulk packages. The USDA said it would work with distributors to determine how much meat remains.
Federal regulations call for keeping downed cattle out of the food supply because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease because they typically wallow in feces and their immune systems are often weak.
About 150 school districts around the nation have stopped using ground beef from Hallmark Meat Packing Co., which is associated with Westland.
A spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture said 17 school districts in the state had received recalled beef products and were disposing of them, but that no illnesses had been reported.
In Georgia, 32 school systems were preparing to destroy thousands of pounds of meat from Westland/Hallmark. Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the state department of education, said he expects school systems that follow the USDA guidelines for disposing of the meat to be reimbursed for the costs of destroying it.
Susan Woods, the food and nutrition director for the Forsyth County, Ga., public schools, said the meat will be placed in plastic bags and doused with bleach before being put into trash bins. A supervisor has to witness the meat being destroyed and provide written documentation to the USDA, she said.
In Michigan, the Grand Rapids district said it must destroy 10 tons of hamburger, while the Ann Arbor public school district has about 200 pounds of the suspect beef.
Martin Ackley, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said state officials didn’t have any way of knowing which districts received the Westland/Hallmark beef. It would have been sent to school lunch programs from processors in the form of meat products such as hamburger patties.
“The processors are letting the school districts know if the beef they received is part of the recall,” Mr. Ackley said.
Call for Investigation
Four Democratic members of Congress called last week for the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate the safety of meat in the National School Lunch Program. The request, from Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and others, came after the Agriculture Department suspended Westland’s contract.
The USDA’s initial steps were appropriate but “they leave unanswered a larger question about the overall effectiveness of the federal government’s effort to ensure the safety of meat” in school lunches, wrote Reps. Miller, Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., in a Feb. 14 letter to David M. Walker, the U.S. comptroller general and head of the GAO.
Upon learning about the recall, ordered Feb. 17, some legislators criticized the USDA, saying the federal agency should conduct more thorough inspections to ensure tainted beef doesn’t get to the public.
“Today marks the largest beef recall in U.S. history, and it involves the national school lunch program and other federal food and nutrition programs,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. “This begs the question: how much longer will we continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal food safety regulations?”
Advocacy groups also weighed in, noting the problems at Westland wouldn’t have been revealed had it not been for animal right activists.
“On the one hand, I’m glad that the recall is taking place. On the other, it’s somewhat disturbing, given that obviously much of this food has already been eaten,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. “It’s really closing the barn door after the cows left.”
‘Shocked and Horrified’
The allegations stem from an undercover video, taken by the Humane Society of the United States, a Washington-based animal-rights group, which shows company employees forcing disabled cows to stand so that they would pass federal inspection.
“I want to reassure our customers and consumers that our company has met the highest standards for harvesting and processing meat,” Steve Mendell, the company’s president, said in a letter posted on its Web site last week. “Words cannot accurately express how shocked and horrified I was at the depictions contained on the video.”
He said the company was cooperating with USDA investigators and was conducting its own inquiry. The USDA launched its own investigation into the matter last month, and alerted school districts to the problem.
Since the Jan. 31 announcement, several states have barred the company’s products from schools, including Idaho, Iowa, Hawaii, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington state.
As part of the investigation, the USDA is trying to determine how much of the company’s products made it to schools.
Over the past five years, Hallmark/Westland has sold about 100 million pounds of beef for federal food and nutrition programs, including the school lunch program.
The USDA is confident in its inspection system, and put a hold on Hallmark/Westlake’s products because the company may have violated regulatory requirements, said Angela Harless, a spokeswoman for the USDA.
But federal lawmakers are concerned that other problems in the nation’s school food supply may go undetected.
This story was supplemented with reporting by staff writer Alyson Klein.