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Record Beef Recall Prompts Lawmaker to Call for Changes at USDA

Feb 20, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Hallmark/Westland beef recall has led one lawmaker to propose a drastic solution to the food safety crisis facing the U.S.  Rep Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) wants to strip the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) of its food safety authority. DeLauro says that the twin missions of the USDA – overseeing food safety and promoting the country’s agricultural industry – have put it at cross purposes, and that a single agency is needed to oversee the safety of the US food supply.

The Hallmark/Westland beef recall involved 143 million pounds of potentially tainted meat, making it the largest recall in US history.  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.    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. 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.  How this happened when USDA inspectors where present at the plant on a daily basis is a question that still needs to be answered.

Yesterday during a conference call with reporters, DeLauro said it was time to change the country’s approach to food safety.  "Food safety ought to be of a high enough priority in this nation that we have a single agency that deals with it and not an agency that is responsible for promoting a product, selling a product and then as an afterthought dealing with how our food supply is safe," DeLauro said.

DeLauro also said she was upset that about 50 million pounds of the recalled Hallmark/Westland meat was sold to the federal school lunch program.  DeLauro said she planned a pair of hearings for early March to examine why federal inspectors did not note the mistreatment and take steps to ensure that "the school lunch program does not become the industry dumping ground for bad meat."

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said during the conference call that the U.S. Government Accountability Office had started investigating the safety of the National School Lunch Program, which is administered by the USDA.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Humane Society told the Associated Press that the organization hoped the recent attention to downer cows would prompt lawmakers to pass pending legislation in the House and Senate that would keep all downer cows out of the food supply. Federal regulations discourage slaughterhouses from processing downer cows into meat because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease, but the USDA still permits them to be used with an inspector's approval

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