Massive Beef Recall - Are You at Risk?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

On Feb. 17, 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the largest beef recall in its history, calling for 143 million pounds of raw frozen beef that originated in a Chino, California, slaughterhouse to be destroyed. A video from the U.S. Humane Society revealed that inhumane tactics were used to stimulate cattle that were too weak to walk prior to slaughter, and the health concerns arose because meat from these cattle entered the food chain.

The recall affected beef slaughtered at the facility, Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., from Feb. 1, 2006, until company operations were suspended by the USDA on Feb. 4, 2008.

Cattle too weak to walk are referred to as "downer" cattle, and these cows should not be slaughtered for meat consumption due to possible health risks, according to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulations, unless a veterinarian has certified that their inability to walk occurred as a result of an injury (such as a broken leg) that would not affect their meat. In the Hallmark/Westland recall, USDA authorities reported that they had evidence that downer cattle were slaughtered and their meat processed for consumption.

Concerns about the consumption of meat from diseased cows stem largely from the fear of contracting "mad cow" disease. Although there was no proof that the nonambulatory cattle in the Hallmark/Westland case suffered from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or "mad cow" disease), the inability to walk is one symptom of the disease and there is a slightly elevated possibility that the downer cattle were affected by the condition. According to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, it was "extremely unlikely" that any cattle processed at the plant were suffering from mad cow disease because of the multiple safeguards in place to screen for and prevent BSE; however, he affirmed that the recall was necessary because plant procedures violated USDA regulations.

Other food-borne diseases that may be transmitted to humans from contaminated beef include Salmonella and E. coli, although there is no proof that cows from the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse were infected with these agents.

While the recall is absolutely necessary given the evidence of violation of FSIS regulations, much of the affected meat had already been consumed when the recall was issued, according to USDA officials. In other cases, the beef was sent to processing and distributing facilities that mix beef from multiple sources during processing into end items (hamburger patties, burrito and taco filling, etc.) for consumption. So, it may never be possible to fully identify the extent to which the recalled beef may have been contained in consumer products.

USDA officials, however, maintained that the risks to human health are negligible, even for those who consumed the recalled beef. In a news release, the USDA reported that the recall was classified as Class II, due to the "remote" possibility that the beef would cause adverse health consequences if consumed. The USDA statement further acknowledged that "the prohibition of downer cattle from entering the food supply is only one measure in an interlocking system of controls the federal government has in place to protect the food supply...Other BSE security measures include the feed ban that prohibits feeding ruminant protein to other ruminants and an ongoing BSE surveillance program that began before the confirmation of the first BSE positive cow in the U.S. in 2003."

SOURCE: USDA Press Release, "Questions and Answers Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co." Feb. 17, 2008. USDA Transcript, "Transcript of Technical Briefing Regarding Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company Two Year Product Recall," Feb. 17, 2008. USDA Recall Release, "California Firm Recalls Beef Products Derived from Non-Ambulatory Cattle without the Benefit of Proper Inspection," Feb. 17, 2008.

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