Last month, the US Department of Agriculture announced the largest beef recall in history - an estimated 143 million pounds of beef. The recall by the California-based Westmark/Hallmark Meat Company came after the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video that showed workers grossly mistreating sick cows; footage included workers kicking sick cows and using forklifts to force them to walk. Questions about the safety of the meat arose because 'downer' cows (cows that can't walk) have been banned from the food supply by the US federal government because they pose additional risks for disease, including mad cow.
The recalled beef represents Westland/Hallmark's entire production for the past two years, which means that the majority of the meat had already been consumed. Agriculture officials stated that evidence of health risks would likely have shown by this point because most of the meat had already been eaten, and also that the recalled meat likely posed minimal health risks because the animals had already passed pre-slaughter inspection. As well, mad cow disease is very rare, and when it does occur, it usually infects the animals' brains and spinal cords - which would not have entered the food chain. While other large recalls have been 'Class I' recalls due to the risk of illness or death on consumption, the Westland/Hallmark recall has been deemed a 'Class II' recall because there are minimal health hazards posed by consumption of the meat.
The Westland/Hallmark recall sets a record of more than four times the previous record of 35 million pounds of beef recalled in 1999. The Westland/Hallmark recall was prompted when a Department of Agriculture investigation revealed that Westland/Hallmark was lax in informing federal veterinary officials when inspected cows became unable to walk. On the day of slaughter, cows are required to undergo pre-slaughter inspections, and if they become unable to walk before the actual slaughter process begins, a federal veterinarian must be contacted and brought in to determine whether or not the animal is fit for slaughter. It was the lack of proper and thorough inspections of the cows that led the Department of Agriculture to deem the beef unfit for human food.
Westland/Hallmark issued the recall on 143 million pounds of raw and frozen beef produced since February 1, 2006. 37 million pounds of the beef was used in the preparation of school lunches and various federal nutrition programs. Again, due to the nature of the situation and the length of production time involved in the recall, it is not believed that the meat from the diseased cows caused any major health concerns. More than anything, the recall was made to uncover whether all the meat had been consumed and also to set a precedent regarding the plant's disregard for the law.
As a result of the video release and ensuing recall, the company has fired employees who were guilty of mistreating the cows, and two employees have also been charged with various misdemeanors and/or felonies. Sadly, this situation is not unusual, as in 2007 alone, the Department of Agriculture suspended some 66 plants, 12 of which were a result of inhumane handling practices.
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