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Was Hallmark/Westland Only Meat Processor to Violate Rules? USDA Says it Doesn't Know.

Feb 26, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The situation that sparked the Hallmark/Westland meat recall earlier this month might not be an isolated incident.  Other meat processors might be illegally slaughtering so-called downer calls, but the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says it has no way of knowing if meat processors follow downer cow rules.  That frank admission from the head of USDA is just more evidence that the agency is in over its head, and is not doing enough to keep the food supply safe.

The USDA announced earlier this month that the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company was recalling 143 million pounds of meat, making it the largest meat recall in US history.  Most of the meat is beef and the recall comes after plant workers were caught on videotape forcing unfit cattle into slaughter.  The head of the USDA said officials are reviewing why the plant processed the downer cows, and also said that  it was too early to determine if such incidents were isolated to Hallmark/Westland.  "We are reviewing our procedures, how we work with the plant, how our inspectors work, our staffing needs," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said.  “And until we find out, we can't assess other plants, and we can't say... this is an isolated incident or an ongoing practice."  Most of the meat has likely been consumed, but at least 37 million pounds were used for school lunches and federal nutrition programs, according to the USDA.

The recall came three weeks after the Humane Society of the US released videotapes from an undercover investigation exposing Hallmark/Westland workers abusing sick and injured cattle.  Meat from "downer" cattle—animals too ill or injured to walk—is not generally released into the food supply to help prevent against the deadly, brain-wasting “mad cow” disease.  The Hallmark/Westland cattle were unable to stand at the time of slaughter, although they passed inspection earlier.  When this occurs, packers are required to alert USDA veterinarians so they can decide if the animal can be slaughtered for food.

Consumer groups and lawmakers are questioning the food safety system and the department's ability to address problems and are pushing for open recalls, including publicizing retailers receiving recalled meat.  The USDA plans to begin listing retailers later this year, but critics want quicker action to protect consumers now.  Representative Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, wrote to Agriculture Secretary Schafer asking for an emergency rule listing retailers and school districts that received products tied to the Hallmark/Westland recall.  "No clear information has been made available on the products involved and this has resulted in consumer confusion about whether they, or their local school district, purchased products subject to the recall," said DeLauro, who scolded the USDA for protecting the industry at the expense of the public's health.
Agriculture Undersecretary Richard Raymond, who oversees USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), said he met last night with Schafer saying, "I had further conversations with people today who may be able to expedite this.  I'm working as hard as I can to get it done."  A spokeswoman with Wegmans Food Markets, said Wegmans supports listing the stores, but is concerned over how the list will be compiled because it sometimes takes retailers time to confirm what they carry.  "If gathering this list of retailers is going to slow (the recall) process down, then we need to find a better way," said Jeanne Colleluori.

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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