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Beef Industry Tried to Scale Back Hallmark/Westland Beef Recall

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Just hours after the Hallmark/Westland beef recall was announced this past Sunday, the beef industry tried to convince the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to scale back the size of the recall.  Hallmark/Westland recalled 143 million pounds of meat after undercover video showed the company slaughtered “downer cattle” – animals too sick to walk or stand – without submitting them to USDA inspection first.  Downer cows are at higher risk of contracting mad cow disease, E. coli and other illnesses that can be passed on to people.

The Hallmark/Westland beef recall had already raised concerns over the USDA’s oversight of the beef industry.  Now, The Wall Street Journal report on the beef industry attempts to scale back the recall is raising questions about industry influence over the agency. According to The Wall Street Journal, on two occasions industry and USDA officials discussed the possibility of excluding from the recall Hallmark/Westland beef that was mixed with other suppliers’ meat and sent to retail and wholesale customers. The Wall Street Journal’s report is based on a memo obtained by the newspaper that was written by an employee of Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC, a Washington law firm that represents several food companies.

According to that memo, during one call this week with about 20 processors, the USDA reaffirmed all meat containing Hallmark/Westland products furnished to schools had to be destroyed. But during a separate conference call, according to the memo, the USDA said it would take a “different approach” for Hallmark/Westland meat that was mixed with other suppliers’ meat and already sent to retail or wholesale customers. “If a processor or grinder has records demonstrating that products were produced using less than 100% of recalled Westland meat for the meat component, then there is no need…to retrieve that ‘commingled’ product,” the memo said. According to The Wall Street Journal, the memo said that such commingled beef was at a “low risk” of causing health problems. The memo also said that meat still within a supplier’s control – not sent out to retail or wholesale customers – that contained any portion of Hallmark/Westland meat should still be destroyed.

According to The Wall Street Journal, a USDA spokesperson would not comment on the memo directly, but the agency appears to have ultimately decided against narrowing the scope of the Hallmark/Westland recall. “The recall is as it was issued on Sunday….We are following the directives, as we do for any recall,” the spokesperson said.

The Hallmark/Westland beef recall involved 143 million pounds of potentially tainted meat, making it the largest recall in US history. The Hallmark/Westland beef recall came just weeks after disturbing undercover video shot by the Humane Society showed workers at the plant using several abusive techniques to make sick animals stand up and pass a pre-slaughter inspection. These included ramming cattle with forklift blades and using a hose to simulate the feeling of drowning.

A USDA veterinarian is supposed to check each downer cow and make sure it’s not diseased, but according to the Humane Society that didn’t happen. The government in most cases bars “downer” cows — which can’t walk or stand on their own — from the food supply. It implemented the rule in 2003 because an inability to walk is a possible symptom of mad-cow disease, which can cause a rare but fatal brain disorder. Because the Hallmark/Westland recall stretches all the way back to 2006, there is speculation that the meat packer was violating downer cattle rules for years. How this happened when USDA inspectors where present at the plant on a daily basis is a question that still needs to be answered.

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