Largest U.S. Beef Recall Under Way

WASHINGTON -- A California meatpacker accused of animal cruelty is making the largest U.S. meat recall on record -- 65 million kilograms, the U.S. Agriculture Department said.

Most of the meat, raw and frozen beef products, probably has already been consumed, said USDA officials at a briefing Sunday. Some 17 million kilograms were bought for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs. USDA said there was only a minor risk of illness from eating the beef.

Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing voluntarily recalled all of its beef produced since Feb. 1, 2006. USDA said Hallmark violated rules against the slaughter of "downer cattle" -- that is, animals too ill to walk.

"This is the largest beef recall in the history of the United States, unfortunately," said Agriculture Undersecretary Richard Raymond.

Based in Chino, California, Hallmark/Westland has been closed since early February. Company officials were not immediately available for comment.

The Humane Society of the United States showed videotapes on Jan. 30 showing workers at the plant using several abusive techniques to make animals stand up and pass a preslaughter inspection. These included ramming cattle with forklift blades and using a hose to simulate the feeling of drowning.

"A recall of this staggering scale proves that it's past time for Congress and the USDA to strengthen our laws for the sake of people and animals," HSUS president Wayne Pacelle said.

Raymond said the recall stemmed from slaughter of cattle that 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.

In most cases, beef from downer cattle is barred from the food supply. The rule was adopted as a safeguard against mad cow disease, a deadly, brain-wasting illness. People can contract a version of the disease by eating tainted products. USDA said there are many other safeguards against mad cow.