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Lawmakers React to State's Massive Beef Recall

Local company that administers food distribution to schools placed hold on all beef from Chino

Posted: February 19, 2008 6:02 p.m.
Updated: April 21, 2008 5:01 a.m.
 
LOS ANGELES - Federal lawmakers and watchdog groups had harsh words Monday for the U.S. Department of Agriculture after the agency ordered a recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a Southern California slaughterhouse.

Beef products dating to Feb. 1, 2006 that came from the Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. are subject to the recall, which is the largest such action in U.S. history. The notice came after the Humane Society of the United States filmed undercover video showing crippled and sick animals being shoved with forklifts - treatment that has also triggered an animal-abuse investigation.

D.J. Co-ops, a Valencia company that administers food distribution to 200 school districts across California, placed a hold on all beef from Westland/Hallmark when the investigation findings were made public at the end of January. President Richard DeBurgh immediately notified all of the school districts that his company serves and told them not to use the beef, and he also contacted all of his distributors who may have had beef from the Chino plant and told them not to deliver it to the schools.

While D.J. Co-ops distributes to the Santa Clarita Valley Food Services Agency, which supplies food items to local school districts, none of the recalled beef was sent to Santa Clarita, DeBurgh said earlier this month.
"Santa Clarita was not affected because they do not cook raw beef in their own facility," he said. "They buy already cooked hamburger patties."

A congresswoman who chairs a House subcommittee that determines funding levels for the USDA sent a letter Monday to the USDA's undersecretary for food safety demanding answers to specific questions on the Westland case before a March 5 budgetary review hearing.

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration Appropriations Subcommittee, called the video inhumane and said she was concerned it "demonstrates just how far our food safety system has collapsed."

DeLauro has also called for a independent investigation into the government's ability to secure the safety of meat in the nation's schools. Westland was a major supplier of beef for the National School Lunch Program.

DeLauro asked Undersecretary Dick Raymond to list schools that could have received the recalled meat, as well as provide an explanation of where the meat was sold commercially and whether it was mixed with beef from other processors.

She also asked how the agency was addressing staff shortages among slaughterhouse inspectors - an issue also raised by several food safety experts and watchdog groups Monday.

Anywhere from 7 percent to 21 percent of inspector positions were left vacant by the USDA depending on the district, said Felicia Nestor, a senior policy analyst with Washington, D.C.-based Food and Water Watch.
"They just don't fill vacancies," Nestor said. "The agency ... is telling consumers we have enough inspectors in these plants to go out and be doing these checks and they don't and they refuse to keep records of it."
USDA spokesman Keith Williams said the agency did not have a shortage of inspectors. He said his department has evidence that Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cattle became non-ambulatory after passing inspection, violating health regulations.

Williams said the recall was done primarily to revoke the USDA's seal of inspection for the meat - not because of the risk of illness.

"Everybody's going, 'Oh, a recall, that means death, that means sickness.' That's a different kind of issue," Williams said. "This is a lower severity, where there would be a remote probability of sickness."
A phone message left for Westland president Steve Mendell was not returned Monday.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin said the senator's Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry would take up several unspecified food safety issues after it finishes rewriting a farm bill.

"What we're concerned with is that the current set of regulations is not being enforced," said Kate Cyrul, a spokeswoman for Harkin, D-Iowa. "These regulations exist for a reason."

Agriculture officials said the massive recall surpasses a 1999 ban of 35 million pounds of ready-to-eat meats. No illnesses have been linked to the newly recalled meat, and officials said the health threat was likely small.

Officials estimate that about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school programs, but they believe most of the meat probably has already been eaten.

"We don't know how much product is out there right now. We don't think there is a health hazard, but we do have to take this action," said Raymond, the USDA undersecretary.

Two former Westland employees were charged Friday. Five felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanors were filed against a pen manager. Three misdemeanor counts - illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal - were filed against an employee who worked under that manager. Both were fired.

Authorities said the video showed workers kicking, shocking and otherwise abusing "downer" animals that were apparently too sick or injured to walk into the slaughterhouse. Some animals had water forced down their throats, San Bernardino County prosecutor Michael Ramos said.

No charges have been filed against Westland, but an investigation by federal authorities continues.

About 150 school districts around the nation have stopped using ground beef from Hallmark Meat Packing Co., which is associated with Westland. Two fast-food chains, Jack-In-the-Box and In-N-Out, said they would not use beef from Westland/Hallmark.

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