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Largest Beef Recall Issued After Undercover Video of 'Downer Cattle' Raises Mad Cow Disease Fears

Feb 18, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

A beef recall encompassing 143 pounds of meat – including some sold to the National School Lunch Program – was issued over the weekend by Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company.  According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the beef recall was necessary because Hallmark violated rules against the slaughter of "downer cattle" -- that is, animals too ill to walk. Downer cattle are at a high risk of contracting E. coli, Mad Cow Disease and other illnesses that can be passed on to people who eat contaminated beef.  The Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company beef recall is by far the largest meat recall ever issued in the US.

The Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company recall includes all of the California-based meat packer’s beef produced since February 1, 2006.  Hallmark/Westland provides meat to the National School Lunch Program and about 150 school districts have stopped using its products.  It is estimated that some 37 million pounds of the tainted meat were bought for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs.  Hallmark/Westland also provided products to two fast food companies. Both Jack-in-the-Box and In-N-Out said they would not use beef from Hallmark /Westland.

The USDA said it had evidence Hallmark/Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian to check on downer cattle, which violates health regulations.  Federal regulations call for keeping downed cattle out of the food supply because they may pose a higher contamination risk from E. coli, Mad Cow Disease or salmonella. In most cases, beef from downer cattle is barred from the food supply. The rule was adopted as a safeguard against Mad Cow Disease, a deadly, brain-wasting illness. People can contract a version of the disease by eating tainted products. The USDA said there are many other safeguards against Mad Cow, and so far, no illnesses have been linked to the recalled beef.

The Hallmark/Westland beef recall came just weeks after disturbing undercover video shot by the Humane Society showed workers at the plant using several abusive techniques to make sick animals stand up and pass a pre-slaughter inspection. These included ramming cattle with forklift blades and using a hose to simulate the feeling of drowning.

The Hallmark/Westland beef recall has renewed criticism of the USDA’s meat inspection procedures.  "How much longer will we continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal food safety regulations?" Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in a statement. "Federal regulations exist for a reason - to protect public health. For Hallmark/Westland to issue a recall that goes back two years indicates that violations may have been long-term."

Prior to the Hallmark/Westland beef recall, largest US recall involved 35 million pounds of meat in 1999.  


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