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Latest Meat Recall Highlights USDA Weaknesses

Feb 19, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Hallmark/Westland beef recall announced this past weekend has raised serious questions about the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) oversight of the meat industry. Hallmark/Westland recalled 143 million pounds of beef on Sunday, after undercover video shot by the Humane Society showed that Hallmark violated USDA rules regarding the slaughter of downer cattle – animals too ill to stand.  Downer cattle are at higher risk of contracting diseases like Mad Cow Disease, E. coli and Salmonella that can be passed on to people who eat tainted.  The USDA is supposed to have inspectors on site to make sure downer cattle don’t make it into the food supply, but in the case of the Hallmark/Westland beef recall, something went seriously wrong.

The Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company recall includes all of the California-based meat packer’s beef produced since February 1, 2006. A substantial portion of the recalled meat went to schools via the federal school lunch program.  The USDA has said that most of the recalled Hallmark/Westland meat was likely already eaten, but several school districts around the country have reportedly found some of the beef in their freezers.

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.  A USDA veterinarian is supposed to check each downer cow and make sure it's not diseased, but according to the Humane Society that didn’t happen.    Because the Hallmark/Westland recall stretches all the way back to 2006, there is speculation that the meat packer was violating downer cattle rules for years. The government in most cases bars "downer" cows -- which can't walk or stand on their own -- from the food supply. It implemented the rule in 2003 because an inability to walk is a possible symptom of mad-cow disease, which can cause a rare but fatal brain disorder.

How this was allowed to happen is not clear, but the unidentified Humane Society investigator who shot the film at Hallmark/Westland told ABC News that the USDA’s inspections of slaughterhouses has become too predictable.  The investigator told ABC News that the inspector would come out at 6:30 in the morning, and 12:30 in the afternoon.   "So, that's approximately two hours outside in the pens, at a set time every day, and there's no fear of an inspector ever coming back out again. You can do whatever you want to those animals."

This is not the first time a meat recall has cast the USDA’s performance in a poor light.  Last September, the Topps Meat Company ground beef recall revealed weaknesses at the agency.  The first case of E. coli poisoning linked to Topps ground beef was reported on July 5. At that time the USDA was unable to trace that illness to a definitive source. But by September 7, state investigators in Florida had linked a girl’s E. coli poisoning to a package of frozen patties found in her family’s freezer. Florida health officials forwarded that information to the USDA. But one case of E. coli poisoning tied to Topps meat was apparently not enough evidence for the USDA to issue a recall notice.  The USDA finally did recall Topps meat on September 25, following a meeting of its recall committee. By then cases of E. coli poisoning linked to Topps ground beef were being reported around the country.

Further investigation revealed that Topps had been ignoring safety standards for months prior to the recall.  For example, Topps had quit testing its meat for bacterial contamination once a month, and was only doing so three times per year. What’s more, Topps did not require its domestic beef suppliers to test their meat, and the company often mixed tested and untested meat together.  The worst thing about the lax safety procedures at the Topps Meat Company plant in New Jersey is that they were occurring right under the noses of USDA meat inspectors. According to the agency, inspectors visited the plant on a daily basis and spent between one and two hours there each day. Yet, the company was never cited over safety issues.

The Hallmark/Westland beef recall has renewed calls for an overhaul of the USDA’s meat inspection system.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the Office of Inspector General, is already investigating whether Hallmark/Westland or USDA inspectors were at fault for this latest meat safety debacle.

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