The largest meat recall in US history has reignited fears that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is not taking adequate measures to ensure the safety of the nation's meat supply.
Earlier this week, the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company, California, voluntarily recalled approximately 143,383,823 pounds of raw and frozen beef products, following an investigation by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
FSIS investigated the Hallmark/Westland plant following an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States, which resulted in video footage of plant employees mistreating cattle.
The footage led to fears that the use of crippled cattle could increase the risk of human exposure to mad cow disease or pathogens such as E.coli.
Video evidence showed slaughter plant workers forcing "downed" animals onto their feet and so into the human food chain. Workers are seen, among other things, kicking cows and ramming them with the blades of a forklift truck.
The news has spurred fired debate amongst industry and consumer safety groups, with the latter claiming that the incident supports growing consumer fears that the government is not properly regulating meat safety.
"This recall is the result of a terrible failure of the US Department of Agriculture's mandate since 1906 to ensure that sick animals are not slaughtered for human food…" said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
The inspection service also found that the company did not consistently contact its public health veterinarian when cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection. This is not compliant with regulations, it said.
According to FSIS regulations, public health vets should reassess non-ambulatory cattle which are either condemned and prohibited from the food supply, or tagged as suspect. Suspect cattle receive a thorough inspection.
FSIS said that the recall is designated as Class II because of the "remote probability that the beef being recalled would cause adverse health effects if consumed".
The main health concern linked to non-ambulatory cattle is BSE. The USDA said "It is extremely unlikely that these animals were at risk for BSE because of the multiple safeguards; however, this action is necessary because plant procedures violated USDA regulations".
The FSIS confirmed that products subjected to the recall were sent to wholesale distributors in bulk packages. They bear the establishment number "EST.336" inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were produced on various dates between February 1st 2006 and February 2nd 2008.
Some of the Westland Meat Co branded products were purchased for Federal food and nutrition programmes. Since the end of January the USDA has had an administrative hold on all products in these outlets including the National School Lunch Programme, the Emergency Food Assistance Programme and the Food Assistance Programme on Indian Reservations.
The FSIS urges companies to "check their inventories and hold the products until the recalling firm makes arrangements for final disposition of the products".
Operations at The Hallmark /Westland Company are currently suspended. The San Bernardino District Attorney has filed felony animal cruelty charges against two former employees.