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USDA Pressured by Industry to Scale Back Hallmark/Westland Beef Recall

Feb 22, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Hallmark/Westland beef recall has raised serious questions about federal oversight of the beef industry, and now it is shedding light on the way that industry tries to influence the regulatory process.  According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the beef industry has been putting pressure on the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to scale back the massive beef recall announced earlier this week.

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.

Now The Wall Street Journal is reporting that beef industry representatives tried to get the USDA to scale back the Hallmark/Westland beef recall only hours after it was announced.  According to The Wall Street Journal, on two occasions industry and USDA officials discussed the possibility of excluding from the recall Hallmark/Westland beef that was mixed with other suppliers' meat and sent to retail and wholesale customers.  The Wall Street Journal's report is based on a memo obtained by the newspaper that was  written by an employee of Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC, a Washington law firm that represents several food companies.

According to that memo, during one call this week with about 20 processors, the USDA reaffirmed all meat containing Hallmark/Westland products furnished to schools had to be destroyed. But during a separate conference call, according to the memo, the USDA said it would take a "different approach" for Hallmark/Westland meat that was mixed with other suppliers' meat and already sent to retail or wholesale customers. "If a processor or grinder has records demonstrating that products were produced using less than 100% of recalled Westland meat for the meat component, then there is no retrieve that 'commingled' product," the memo said.  According to The Wall Street Journal, the memo said that such commingled beef was at a "low risk" of causing health problems.  The memo also said that meat still within a supplier's  control - not sent out to retail or wholesale customers - that contained any portion of  Hallmark/Westland meat should still be destroyed.

According to The Wall Street Journal, a USDA spokesperson would not comment on the memo directly, but the agency appears to have ultimately decided against narrowing the scope of the Hallmark/Westland recall.  "The recall is as it was issued on Sunday....We are following the directives, as we do for any recall," the spokesperson said.

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