Feb. 18, 2008 — -- A disturbing undercover video showing cows too sick to stand being shoved with forklifts or dragged with chains across a cement floor at a Southern California slaughterhouse has sparked the largest beef recall in the nation's history.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered a recall of 143 million pounds of beef Sunday evening from Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., which is the subject of an animal-abuse investigation. The recall affects beef products dating back to Feb. 1, 2006 that came from the company.
"Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection," the Food Safety and Inspection Service said, "[it] has determined them to be unfit for human food."
The USDA insists the threat is small.
Westland/Hallmark provides meat to the National School Lunch Program and about 150 school districts have stopped using its products. Now officials are scrambling to prevent the questionable beef from reaching school lunch counters. They estimate about 37 million pounds of the beef has gone to schools.
Westland/Hallmark also provided products to two fast food companies. Both Jack-in-the-Box and In-N-Out said they would not use beef from Westland/Hallmark.
The USDA said it had evidence Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cattle became nonambulatory after passing inspection, which violates health regulations.
Federal regulations call for keeping downed cattle out of the food supply because they may pose a higher contamination risk from E. coli, mad cow disease or salmonella.
So far, no illnesses have been linked to the recalled beef and officials said they believe the majority of it already has been consumed.
Most of the beef was sent to distribution centers in bulk packages. The USDA said it will work with distributors to determine how much meat remains.
Agriculture officials said the massive recall surpasses a 1999 ban of 35 million pounds of ready-to-eat meats.
Critics scolded the USDA upon learning of the recall, saying the federal agency should conduct more thorough inspections to ensure tainted beef doesn't get into the public's food supply.
"It's clear that USDA's system failed and it allowed this company to engage in long-term inhumane practices," said Carolyn Smith DeWaal, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Animal activists said if it hadn't been for the Humane Society's undercover footage, the Westland/Hallmark may have continued produce meat.
The video showed downed cows struggling to get on their feet as operators shoved them into position with forklifts.
The recall's fallout included criminal charges against two former workers Friday.
Five felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanors were filed against a pen manager.
Also, three misdemeanor counts of illegal movement of a nonambulatory animal were filed against another employee who worked under that manager. Both were fired.