USDA unsure if Calif. cattle case isolated to plant
By Christopher Doering
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Days after the largest meat recall in U.S. history, the head of the Agriculture Department said officials are reviewing why a California plant processed unfit cattle, and that it was too early to determine whether it was an incident specific to the facility.
The USDA announced on Sunday that the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co was recalling 143 million lbs (65 million kilos) of meat, mostly beef, after plant workers were caught on videotape forcing unfit cattle into the slaughterhouse.
"We are reviewing our procedures, how we work with the plant, how our inspectors work, our staffing needs," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer told reporters at the USDA's annual Outlook Forum. "And until we find out, we can't assess other plants, and we can't say ... this is an isolated incident or an ongoing practice."
Most of the meat, raw and frozen beef products, probably already has been consumed with at least 37 million lbs used for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs, according to USDA. The department has said there was a minor risk of illness from eating the meat.
The recall came three weeks after the Humane Society of the United States released videotapes from an undercover investigation showing Hallmark/Westland workers using a variety of abusive techniques to force sick and injured cattle into the slaughterhouse so they could be processed into food.
Beef from so-called "downer" cattle -- where the animal is too ill or injured to walk -- is usually not allowed in the food supply. The rule was adopted as a safeguard against "mad cow" disease, a deadly, brain-wasting illness.
In this case, the cattle could not stand at the time of slaughter, although they passed inspection earlier. Packers are required to alert USDA veterinarians in those cases so they can decide if the animal can be slaughtered for food.
CONSUMERS, LAWMAKERS CALL FOR CHANGE
The recall has prompted consumer groups and lawmakers to question the usefulness of food safety system and the department's ability to address problems that arise. They have also pushed for a more open recall system, including making public the list of retailers that receive recalled meat.
USDA plans to begin listing retailers later this year, but critics want quicker action on the plan in order to protect consumers.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Schafer asking the department to issue an emergency rule listing the retailers and school districts that received products tied to the Hallmark/Westland recall.
"No clear information has been made available on the products involved and this has resulted in consumer confusion about whether they, or their local school district, purchased products subject to the recall," said DeLauro, who chided the USDA for protecting the industry at the expense of the public's health.
Agriculture Undersecretary Richard Raymond, who oversees USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said he met last night with Schafer to discuss the importance of the measure. "I had further conversations with people today who may be able to expedite this," said Raymond. "I'm working as hard as I can to get it done."
A spokeswoman with Wegmans Food Markets, a privately-held grocer with more than 70 outlets, said the retailer supports listing the stores, but it is concerned how the list will be gathered. In same cases, it takes the retailer time to determine if they even carry the product being recalled.
"If gathering this list of retailers is going to slow (the recall) process down, then we need to find a better way," said Jeanne Colleluori of Wegmans.
Hallmark/Westland has been closed since early February. Since the video was released, USDA has put a "hold" on all of its products and suspended the company indefinitely as a supplier to federal nutrition programs.
(Editing by Russell Blinch and Marguerita Choy)