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Safety Not at Issue in Latest Beef Recall: USDA

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- An undercover video showing crippled animals being shoved with forklifts to their slaughter has prompted the largest beef recall in the United States and a scramble to track down the path of the affected meat that was destined for school lunches.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Sunday suspended operations at Chino, Calif.-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., and ordered a class II recall of 143 million pounds of beef from after an undercover video from the Humane Society of the United States surfaced showing crippled and sick animals being shoved with forklifts or dragged with chains across slaughterhouse floors.

No retailers contacted by Progressive Grocer since the recall said they were affected so far, either by the recall or by negative repercussions in general on beef sales.

The recall affects beef products dating to Feb. 1, 2006 and which provided meat to various federal programs. Officials estimate that about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school programs, but they said they believed most of the meat probably has already been eaten.

The USDA has been investigating the company since the animal rights group released the video January 30 depicting inhumane treatment of livestock at the establishment. Federal officials stressed that the plant did not comply with inspection procedures, but that food safety was not at issue.

In a statement, USDA said all cattle processed by the plant passed antemortem inspection. However, when some cattle later became non-ambulatory after passing inspection, the plant should have summoned the inspector again, and it did not do so, according to UDSA.

"We don't know how much product is out there right now," said Dr. Dick Raymond, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety. "We don't think there is a health hazard, but we do have to take this action."

About 150 school districts around the nation have stopped using the ground beef in question, most of which was sent to distribution centers in bulk packages. The USDA said it will work with distributors to determine how much meat remains.

The American Meat Institute underscored that the meat being recalled relates to non-compliance with inspection procedures, not food safety concerns.

"USDA's message was clear: cattle inspection procedures were not followed and when they are not, product is considered 'out of compliance' and must be recalled," said Mark Dopp, AMI's s.v.p./ regulatory affairs and general counsel.

Dopp said all cattle processed by this plant passed the initial inspection to check their health, but that in some instances, when some cattle later became unable to walk, the USDA veterinarian should have been called again to reevaluate, but was not.

The fact that an animal becomes not ambulatory does not necessarily mean it is ill, said Dopp, who noted that it was "important to note that the government has found no evidence that the meat was unsafe and has appropriately classified it as a 'Class II recall,' and not a 'Class I recall,' which is used when a there is a reasonable probability that a public health risk exists."

Dopp condemned the handling practices depicted in an undercover video shot in the plant and released January 30, and said they stand in sharp contrast to typical animal handling practice in the meat industry.

Meanwhile, consumer advocacy groups also weighed in, noting the problems at Westland wouldn't have been revealed had it not been for animal right activists.

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union said: "On the one hand, I'm glad that the recall is taking place. On the other, it's somewhat disturbing, given that obviously much of this food has already been eaten. It's really closing the barn door after the cows left."

Added Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI): "The massive recall of beef from the Westland/Hallmark facility dwarfs all other meat recalls and follows over 20 beef recalls in the last 12 months. Consumers are losing confidence in USDA's ability to ensure the meat they eat is safe."

The latest recall "is the result of a terrible failure of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's mandate since 1906 to ensure that sick animals are not slaughtered for human food," said Smith DeWaal, noting "that once again, USDA is in reactive mode -- taking steps to protect the public long after a highly publicized animal welfare scandal."
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