-- The U.S. government on Sunday ordered the largest beef recall in U.S. history — 143.4 million pounds — and said the meat has been used in school lunches and food assistance programs.
The government portrayed the action as precautionary and classified it as a Class II recall, meaning there is little likelihood of illness.
The beef dates to cattle slaughtered two years ago, starting Feb. 1, 2006, at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing, based in Chino, Calif. The USDA said it believes most already has been eaten. It will remove the rest from inventories.
"We don't know exactly where all the product went" but will "cast a wide net to make sure that we can find all the product that we can find," Ken Petersen at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said in a conference call with reporters Sunday.
Most of the beef was sent to distribution centers in bulk packages.
About 150 school districts around the nation have stopped using ground beef from Hallmark Meat Packing, 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.
Jack in the Box, a San Diego-based company with restaurants in 18 states, told its meat suppliers not to use Hallmark until further notice, but it was unclear whether it had used any Hallmark meat. In-N-Out, an Irvine-based chain, also halted use of the Westland/Hallmark beef. Other chains such as McDonald's and Burger King said they do not buy beef from Westland.
Operations have been suspended at the slaughterhouse, and the facility continues to be under investigation, the USDA said.
The meatpacker is accused of improperly slaughtering what are called "downer" cattle — those unable to walk to slaughter.
Such cattle raise the fear of mad cow disease and are more likely to carry E. coli and salmonella bacteria because they typically wallow in feces and their immune systems are often weak.
The government said it had inspectors present "continuously" at the plant, as is standard procedure.
Even so, the use of downer cattle was brought to light by the Humane Society of the United States, which published a video last month it said was made by an undercover worker at Hallmark/Westland. The video shows cattle lying on the ground being moved by forklifts and being chained and pulled.
In a statement Sunday, the Humane Society said, "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."
A phone message left for Westland President Steve Mendell was not immediately returned.
Two former 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 shows workers kicking, shocking and otherwise abusing "downer" animals. Some animals had water forced down their throats, San Bernardino County prosecutor Michael Ramos said.
No charges have been filed against Westland yet.
The huge recall will put the safety of the U.S. beef supply "front and center" in Congress, said William Marler, a prominent food-safety lawyer.
He said it also will raise questions about USDA inspection of meat plants. "It's hard to imagine … that they couldn't figure this out sooner."
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said in a statement that USDA must toughen its inspection measures before animals are slaughtered to prevent future occurrences.
"How much longer will we continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal food safety regulations?" said Harkin, an Iowa Democrat. "Federal regulations exist for a reason — to protect public health. For Hallmark/Westland to issue a recall that goes back two years indicates that violations may have been long-term."
Four senior Democrats in Congress, including Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, told the General Accounting Office on Thursday to investigate the safety of meat in the school lunch program in light of the Hallmark/Westland case.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said Sunday that the recall "raises alarming questions about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ability to monitor the safety of meat that is being shipped to our nation's schools. It is outrageous that it took a non-governmental organization to shed light on the egregious abuses that were happening right under the USDA's nose."
Miller said the USDA "still can't tell us exactly which schools may have received this tainted meat, or how much of it has already been consumed or reprocessed into other foods."
The previous record for a meat recall was 35 million pounds in 1999 by Thorn Apple Valley, the government said.
The most recent large meat recall was 21.7 million pounds of ground beef by Topps Meat of Elizabeth, N.J., in September for E. coli contamination linked to reports of 32 illnesses.
Only 2.2 million pounds of the meat were recovered in the recall, USDA data show.