143 million pounds of beef recalled — but not to worry

It's rather unusual to get an email about an update from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on midday Sunday of a holiday weekend. It's also rather unusual to go to the USDA's open cases website and find only a link to a PDF of the recall notice, rather than information posted online. How surprising then to learn from this low-profile PDF that the U.S.'s largest-ever recall is now under way "approximately 143,383,823 pounds" (give or take a few ounces?) of raw and frozen beef products from the disgraced Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, California. That's almost half the amount of beef and poultry recalled since 1994 in the United States, although I am not sure where it will go on Marc's chart.

The beef is not known to be contaminated with anything, so why is it being recalled? Because Hallmark/Westland "did not consistently contact the FSIS public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection." In plain English, it's because the plant processed "downer" cattle, those too sick to stand on their own, as captured by an undercover Humane Society activist (see previous post if this is somehow news to you). They are allowed to send such animals into the food supply only if the FSIS's public-health veterinarian is notified and re-inspects them carefully after death.

Bizarrely, and for what appears to be mostly symbolic reasons, the USDA is recalling all Hallmark/Westland products produced from Feb. 1, 2006 to Feb. 2, 2008. FSIS rates the health risk of these millions of recalled beef products as Class II or "low" not only because they have all likely been eaten by now, but also because "The prohibition of downer cattle from entering the food supply is only one measure in an interlocking system of controls the federal government has in place to protect the food supply" from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad-cow disease.

The agency is acting out of an excess of caution, a USDA spokesman told the Los Angeles Times.In today's recall notice, the FSIS reassuringly explains that the government has many safeguards to prevent BSE, such as a feed ban that prohibits feeding cows to cows (technically, ruminants to other ruminants) and an ongoing BSE surveillance program. It also "requires the removal of specified risk materials (SRM) so they do not enter the food supply." The recall does not spell out what these risky materials are, but for that one can turn to an August 2007 FSIS document, where they are defined as:

the brain, skull, eyes, trigeminal ganglia, spinal cord, vertebral column (excluding the vertebrae of the tail, the transverse processes of the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, and the wings of the sacrum), and dorsal root ganglia (DRG) of cattle 30 months of age and older and the tonsils and the distal ileum from all cattle.

(That document also contains this rather heartbreaking sentence: "veal calves that cannot rise from a recumbent position, or that cannot walk because they are tired or cold, may be set apart and held for treatment.")

I am not confident that cattle in America are never fed rendered remnants of other cattle remember how shocked everyone was when last year's contaminated pet food was found to have been fed to pigs, which were then declared safe to eat? or reassured by the USDA's so-called surveillance program, given that it tests fewer than 1% of cattle for BSE and forbids cattle ranchers from conducting their own testing. But the truth is that the downers shown in the appalling Humane Society video were likely not at all mad, just typical run-of-the-mill used-up dairy cows.

Dairy cows are worked hard: milked for seven months of their nine-month pregnancies, after which they are immediately inseminated again, and occasionally injected with artificial hormones to boost their milk production further. They are typically slaughtered for hamburger at just four or five years old, after only a few years of milking. According to this Purdue University informational dairy website, the main reasons cows "leave the dairy herd" get sent off to the big milkshake machine in the sky are "low production, infertility, mastitis (inflammation of the udder), and lameness." As several commenters to my first post on Hallmark/Westmoreland pointed out, the life of typical conventional dairy cows is far more appalling than their ends as captured in that video. A few days ago, San Bernardino County prosecutors charged Hallmark's head pen manager with felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanor counts of "illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal"; his undocumented-immigrant assistant was also charged with misdemeanor accounts. The assistant says he acted out of fear of being fired; the manager is claiming that the owner told him to use the forklift or water jets to force the animals up and onto their feet.

As is typical, the recall notice does not say what it will happen to any of the millions of pounds of recalled products, or whether Hallmark Meat Packing will be offering a refund on its various-weight boxes of among other things beef lips, spleens, and lymph nodes, and six-gallon containers of beef bile.

9 Responsesto “143 million pounds of beef recalled — but not to worry”

  1. I'll offer another explination for why their doing this:
    1) The USDA is pushing NAIS.
    2) Mandatory NAIS "failed".
    3) They use Mad Cow as an excuse for NAIS despite the fact that it has nothing to do with NAIS.
    4) If they can scare enough people enough of the time then they can justify programs like NAIS and their high salaries.
    5) Big Ag likes NAIS because it costs them next to nothing but it will sink the small farmers letting Big Ag gain that last 15% of the market share they covent.

    We're not paranoid if they're really out to get us... to paraphrase Kissenger.

  2. ExPat Chef says:

    You can bet your rump roast that using whatever means necessary to get the cows ambulatory was not just the pen manager's idea. I would like to see the prosecution go straight up to the head of the company responsible for this abuse, not the peons at the bottom of the chain fired as an example.

  3. Mae Davis says:

    The cruel and inhumane treatment of these animals is inconceivable. The employees should bave had sense enough to know that what they were doing was wrong; but obviously were doing it for the dollar, or fear of losing their job. They should be fired at the very least and the company big-wigs should be sued by every organization possible. This company should be boycotted and shut down. I will never ever buy anything with that label and hope others will follow my lead. It makes you wonder how they treat their families!!! It is well documented that cruelty of animals begets cruelty to humans. I wish I could contact the company directly and just tell them what I think of their tactics and the owners. You should always know whats going on in your company 100% of the time. It is your responsibility to the public. What idiots!@!!!!

  4. Christina says:

    It's curious how the bad pet food from China got more attention than this. I mean, if there is a risk the meat is bad, wouldn't that get a little more than a page 5 in the newspaper? Perhaps it's easier to slam China's production than take a close look at our own production methods.

  5. Tsila says:

    I wonder if the recalled products will just be forked over to the pet food industry?

  6. Susan says:

    Pet owners should know that the SRM materials are acceptable and commonly used in pet food. The FDA proposed revisions in 2004 to eliminate all SRM's in any type of food - human or animal, but no changes were ever approved. Mad Cow disease has crossed species into cats in the UK and in mink worldwide. Let's hope U.S. pets aren't next.

  7. I agree that these cruel tactics for getting the downed cattle to stand were likely a top-down directive, not the idea of low-level workers. It kind of reminds me of Abu Ghraib in that respect.

    But in addition to the revolting cruelty, my other reaction is: What a waste! The largest recall in U.S. history for meat that is probably fine. Couldn't the USDA find a better way to punish Hallmark/Westland?

  8. Janet says:

    This really should come as no surprise because slaughterhouses have been killing sick animals for years and years. You should see the veal slaughterhouses and the condition those animals are in; just disgusting. Not only are the calves force-fed and housed in stalls, they are also pumped up with antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to gain enough weight to produce a good profit for the grower. As a former executive of a meat processing company,I was appalled at the non-scientific nature of USDA inspections. That was 20 years ago, and it appears not much has changed (actually, I think it's probably worse now!).

  9. cg says:

    despite much searching, I find no mention anywhere on where all this "bad" beef goes.  How is it disposed?  Anyone?  thanks.