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Beef Recall FAQ

What You Need to Know About the Biggest U.S. Beef Recall

By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Feb. 18, 2008 -- Americans already have eaten most of the 143.4 million pounds of beef involved in this week's biggest-ever U.S. meat recall.

Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture says consumers are at little risk -- even if they did eat the meat.

It's a confusing issue. Here's WebMD's guide to what's going on.

Exactly what meat products were involved? Are they still in stores?

Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. of Chico, Calif., slaughters cattle and uses them to produce raw and frozen beef products ranging from hamburger meat to beef bile. The recalled beef includes all products made by this company over the two-year period from Feb. 1, 2006, to Feb. 2, 2008, when the USDA suspended plant operations.

During those two years, Hallmark/Westland produced 143,383,823 pounds of beef products. All of it has been recalled.

Since October 2006, 37 million pounds of this beef went to federal school lunch programs and other domestic assistance programs such as the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

It is not yet clear where the rest of the beef was sold. However, USDA officials believe most of the beef already has been consumed, as most of it is a raw beef product with a very brief shelf life.

Exact product descriptions can be viewed in a document at the USDA web site. All Westland products carry the company's federal establishment number -- EST 336 -- as well as the packing date.

Why does the USDA say the risk is low?

The risk is low because no contaminated or infected beef has been found and because no human illnesses have been linked to the recalled beef.

Why was the beef recalled?

According to the USDA, Hallmark/Westland voluntarily recalled the products because of allegations that the company failed to properly inspect cattle prior to slaughter.

A video released by the Humane Society of the United States vividly documents inhumane treatment of cattle at the Hallmark/Westland facility. It showed cows that were unable to walk being repeatedly shocked, sprayed in the nose with high-pressure hoses, and shoved with forklifts in order to make them stand.

Since July 2007, U.S. food regulations say cattle unable to stand on their own ("downer" cattle) may not be used as food unless they are inspected and found to be healthy except for acute injuries, such as a broken leg, that make them unable to walk.

These regulations were put in place to ensure that animals infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- BSE or mad cow disease -- did not enter the food supply.

The USDA says there's evidence that Hallmark/Westland has been violating this rule since Feb. 1, 2006. In a statement posted on the Westland web site, Steve Mendell, president of Westland Meat Co., says his company has conducted all required inspections and has taken "swift action" regarding two employees shown in the Humane Society video (local authorities have charged the two employees with felony animal cruelty).

Could I get mad cow disease from the recalled beef?

Richard Raymond, MD, USDA undersecretary for food safety, said at a news conference that a U.S. surveillance program has examined 750,000 downer cattle in the U.S. since 2004. Only two of these animals were found to have BSE. Neither entered the food chain.

Moreover, Raymond noted that the animals apparently mistreated at the Hallmark/Westland plant were 5 to 7 years old, which means they were raised after the U.S. prohibited the use of potentially BSE-contaminated animal products in cattle feed in 1997.

Cattle don't catch BSE from one another. They get it only by eating feed made from the brains, spines, or small intestines of animals with BSE. Since the ban on such feed, BSE has become extremely rare.

For these reasons, the USDA says the risk of anyone getting BSE from the recalled meat is "negligible."

Jeff Bender, DVM, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota, agrees with this assessment.

"We have very little evidence there is any BSE out there in the U.S.," Bender tells WebMD.

Are other meat-processing plants doing the same thing?

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service says it "believes" that the "egregious violations of humane handling requirements" that appear to have happened at the Hallmark/Westland plant are "an isolated incident."

The USDA says it has no plans to increase inspection efforts at other plants. The FSIS notes that it has 7,800 inspectors who provide a "continuous presence" at the 6,200 federally inspected establishments, 900 of which slaughter livestock.

SOURCES: Jeff Bender, DVM, associate professor and director, Center for Animal Health and Food Safety, University of Minnesota. U.S. Department of Agriculture news conference, transcript downloaded Feb. 18, 2008. USDA news releases, Feb. 17, 2008, and Jan. 31, 2008. Hallmark Meat Packing web site. Humane Society of the United States web site.

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