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Hallmark/Westland Meat Recall Sparks Food Poisoning Worries

Feb 26, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced that the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company was recalling 143 million pounds—65 million kilos—of meat, following a videotape of plant workers forcing unfit cattle into slaughter.  Most of the meat has likely been consumed; at least 37 million pounds were used for school lunches and federal nutrition programs, according to the USDA.  Now people are wondering if anyone fell ill from the recent recall and if E. coli was involved.

The videotape was obtained by the Humane Society and showed animals that could not walk on their own being prodded and, in some cases, fork-lifted onto the killing floor. When animals fall ill, packers are required to alert USDA veterinarians so they can decide if the animal can be slaughtered for food.  While consumers were horrified at how the cattle were treated, the cruelty they endured was not what got the attention of the government.  The USDA forbids cows that cannot move on their own from being slaughtered because their illness may be an indication of a condition that renders their meat unfit for consumption.  The most famous condition of concern is Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease.  While cattle are afflicted with BSE, humans who eat infected meat are at a risk of contracting Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease [vCJD].

A much more common reason for recalling beef is E. coli contamination.  Last year there were 21 such recalls, including 21.7 million pounds of raw meat distributed by the now defunct Topps Meat Company.  While Escherichia coli is a very common bacterium; E. coli 0157:H7 is a virulent strain found in the digestive systems of cattle.  This strain does not sicken cattle, but in humans it can cause digestive distress and, sometimes, more serious problems and even death.  The bacteria are benignly present in the cow’s intestines and feces and because cows living in feedlots cannot avoid contact with manure; they step in it and it gets on their hides.  One of the most critical aspects of safe slaughtering is keeping the hides from touching the carcasses and cleanly removing the cow's digestive organs.  If the contents of the cow's intestines or manure on the hide contact the meat, there is potential for contamination.  The risk is smaller for meat destined to be cut into steaks or roasts because any E. coli present
will be located on the meat's outer surface and killed once it reaches 160 degrees, which the surface of even a rare steak generally reaches. 

But when contaminated beef is ground, E. coli present on the surface is mixed with the clean interior neat.  Also, if the ground meat of a clean animal is ground with that of a contaminated one—and this is generally the case—the entire quantity will be compromised.

Hallmark/Westland has been closed since early February when the video was released and the USDA has put a hold on all of its products, suspending the company indefinitely as a supplier to federal nutrition programs.


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