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USDA announces biggest beef recall ever

CHINO Calif. In the largest beef recall in U.S. history, the Hallmark Meat Packing Co. and its affiliated Westland Meat Co. are trying to recover 143 million pounds of beef after a U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation revealed the processor’s plant here failed to follow a safeguard against bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

Almost all of the beef, which was processed during a two-year stretch, has likely been consumed, said Ron Vogel of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. However, the USDA stressed that the public’s risk of exposure to BSE was “negligible.”

“It is extremely unlikely that these animals were at risk for BSE because of the multiple safeguards,” USDA secretary Ed Schafer said in a statement.

The USDA said on Sunday that the Chino plant had violated regulations issued by administration’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Those rules require a cattle slaughterhouse to summon a USDA veterinarian whenever an animal loses its ability to walk right before slaughter. By that time, a check of the animal’s mobility — the “ante mortem inspection,” in USDA parlance — has already been made to screen out cattle possibly contaminated with BSE. Cows or steers afflicted with the ailment are often unable to walk.

As an added safeguard, an animal that loses its ability to walk right before slaughter must be inspected by a USDA vet, who determines if the animal was immobilized by an injury or other development that poses no food-safety risk. If an innocuous cause isn’t evident, the vet prohibits the animal from entering the food supply, in the off chance it might have BSE.

Since February 2006, Hallmark/Westland failed to summon a public health vet every time a head of beef became “nonambulatory” between the ante mortem inspection and slaughter, USDA said.

“Therefore, FSIS determined that their products were unfit for human food because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection,” said Richard Raymond, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety.

The recall extends to various beef cuts as well as ground beef. Included are such processed, ready-to-use products as burrito filling. News reports indicated that ready-to-cook burger patties sold to quick-service chains were among the products covered.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association issued a statement Sunday in support of the USDA’s actions. “We support USDA’s recall as a precautionary measure,” said James O. Reagan, chairman of the Beef Industry Food Safety Council and vice president of research and knowledge management for the NCBA. “At the same time, we can say with confidence that the beef supply is safe. We have multiple interlocking safeguards in place in every beef processing plant in America so that if one is bypassed, the other systems continue to ensure the product we serve our families remains safe.” 

The Hallmark/Westland plant had been under scrutiny by the USDA for some time. The department suspended the plant’s operation on Feb. 4 after discovering that controls were not put in place to guarantee the humane handling and slaughter of cattle. On Friday, Schafer’s office said that the San Bernardino district attorney had filed animal cruelty charges against two employees who had been fired by the plant.

Earlier in the month, the Jack in the Box and In-N-Out Burger quick-service chains said they were suspending purchases from Hallmark/Westland because of concerns about the processor's animal-handling practices. A video secretly shot by the Humane Society of the United States had captured scenes of slaughterhouse personnel attempting to prod nonambulatory "downer" cows onto their feet so they could be killed and processed. 

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