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USDA orders largest beef recall in nation's history

Feb 19, 2008
By dvm360.com staff

Chino, Calif. - 2/19/08 - The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recalled 143 million pounds of beef last month from a California meatpacker due to oversight lapses by public health veterinarians who were not summoned to re-evaluate nonambulatory cattle pre-slaughter.

The recall, described as the largest in U.S. history, responds to undercover Humane Society of the United States video shot last fall at Hallmark Meat Packing Co. that shows handlers allegedly using electric shock, forklifts, high-intensity water sprays and brute force to make downed cattle walk to slaughter.

Such tactics violate a USDA-issued ban on the slaughter of downer cattle for food, which acts as a safeguard against bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The slaughter plant is a supplier for its sister business, Westland Meat Co., which processes the carcasses and distributes beef to schools via USDA's National School Lunch Program and other public-feeding programs. At press time, both companies suspended their operations, and USDA's Office of the Inspector General, the agency's legal arm, continued to investigate.

In a Feb. 17 news release, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer says he's "dismayed at the inhumane handling of cattle that has resulted in the violation of food safety regulations at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co." While it's "extremely unlikely" that the animals were act risk for contracting BSE, Schafer says, the action is necessary because plant procedures violated USDA regulations.

"USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has evidence that Hallmark/Westland did not consistently contact the FSIS public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became nonambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with FSIS regulations," Schafer says. "Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection, FSIS has determined them to be unfit for human food and the company is conducting a recall."

Veterinary medicine responds

In the meantime, veterinary medicine's leaders are reacting to the allegations. Statements issued separately by the American Veterinary Medical Association and American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) address the footage shot by a HSUS member and posted on the group's Web site.

In a Feb. 6 release, AABP officials characterized images in the video as "deplorable." AVMA Executive Vice President Dr. Ron DeHaven responded with an editorial letter to the Washington Post, which broke the story, calling for "the strictest penalties if the allegations are confirmed" and citing a need for more public-health veterinarians.

The letter was not published.

Company stance

In a Feb. 3 statement, Steve Mendell, president of Westland and Hallmark, reports that company officials retained a veterinarian formerly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service to independently audit the plant's operations.

"Words cannot accurately express how shocked and horrified I was at the depictions contained on the video that was taken by an individual who worked at our facility from Oct. 3 through Nov. 14, 2007," Mendell says in a statement. AABP President Michael Bolton says that although he can't attest to the video's authenticity, he questions Mendell's ignorance of the situation.

"Most people don't run their business at that arm's length," he says. "From what we can see, the class of cattle in that slaughterhouse had no business even being considered for food. Even if the footage is not valid, anyone who sees it knows that somewhere, someone was squirting water up a Holstein's nose. We represent 5,000 veterinarians who have their livelihood in food-animal medicine; we consider this our business, no matter where the animal cruelty exists."