From: Reuters
Published February 28, 2008 01:26 PM

Beef recall raises flags about USDA food programs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The biggest recall of meat in U.S. history raises "red flags" about the safety of meat used in school lunch and other programs administered by the U.S. Agriculture Department, the head of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee said on Thursday.

The recall of 143 million pounds of meat came three weeks after the Humane Society of the United States released videotapes from an undercover investigation showing Hallmark/Westland Packing Co workers using a variety of abusive techniques to force sick and injured cattle into the slaughterhouse.

Most of the meat probably already has been consumed, with at least 55 million pounds purchased for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs, according to USDA.

"The latest Hallmark/Westland beef recall raises red flags about the standards we are using to maintain the safety and quality of the food we are using in our federal assistance programs, including the School Lunch Program," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who heads the subcommittee.

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USDA officials, who have been criticized for not uncovering the abuse, have questioned why it took the Humane Society four months to publicly release the video.

The Humane Society, which has rebuffed the criticism, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the USDA, asking it to ban all so-called downer cattle from being processed into food.

"Unless we want yet another dramatic food scare ... we should not hesitate to close this legal loophole and establish an unambiguous no-downer policy that will also help protect crippled animals from egregious abuse," Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, said in a statement.

Beef from 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.

USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong told the subcommittee her independent agency was investigating to see what individuals at the Hallmark/Westland plant were responsible, and whether the failure to abide by federal laws was an isolated incident or happening at other facilities.

"We're going to have to follow the evidence where it leads," she said.

(Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by Russell Blinch and Walter Bagley)

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