March: Biodefense & food supply safetyCompany involved in largest U.S. meat recall admits it was at fault

Published 13 March 2008

In February Hallmark/Westland Meat was forced to recall 143 million pounds of meat — the largest recall in U.S. history — after it was revealed that the company processed cows which were potentially sick; a week after the recall, the company went out of business; company’s president admits company was at fault

The head of the California firm involved in the largest U.S. meat recall took responsibility yesterday for the problems at his facility and told lawmakers for the first time that meat from illegally processed cattle may have entered the food supply. Steve Mendell, president of Hallmark/Westland Meat, initially said his firm had complied with federal rules prohibiting most so-called downer cattle from being processed. He soon backed away from that claim after watching a video, secretly made at his plant, during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. “That would be logical, yes, sir,” to assume that meat from at least two downer cows entered the food supply, said Mendell, who added that it would be premature to conclude definitively until it had been fully investigated.

A videotape released on 30 January by the Humane Society of the United States showed Hallmark/Westland workers using abusive techniques, including ramming animals with forklift blades and using a hose to simulate the feeling of drowning, to force “downer” cows into the slaughterhouse. The California plant later recalled 143 million pounds of meat, mostly beef, dating back to February 2006. “It is devastating because of the possible risk to the food supply,” said Representative John Shimkus (R-Illinois). “We are under pressure to get this right.” Mendell told lawmakers the abuse in the videos was “an oversight” that has ruined the company, costing it hundreds of millions of dollars and leaving it in ruins. He called the evidence in the video “sickening.”

I think his testimony was clear that that videotape was a legitimate concern on food safety. It was the first time he saw that,” Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas congressman and deputy DHS secretary, who was Mendell’s attorney, told reporters.

The meat was recalled because the plant butchered downer cattle in violation of federal rules. Beef from downer cattle — defined as an animal too ill or injured to walk — is usually not allowed in the food supply. The rule was adopted as a safeguard against mad cow and other diseases. “Our intention was never to drive this plant out of business,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. “That plant engaged in irresponsible behavior and this is a consequence of that.” The U.S. Agriculture Department has been widely criticized for missing the problems at the slaughter plant in Chino, California. Since the investigation began, the USDA has placed three employees on administrative leave. USDA’s Office of the Inspector General is investigating which plant officials were responsible, and whether the case was an isolated incident. Agriculture secretary Ed Schafer said recently that before USDA would consider making any major changes it must find out more about why the incident took place.

Three weeks ago Hallmark/Westland announced it was shutting down because it could not find a way out of the financial losses the meat recall inflicted on it.