Of the 143 million pounds of beef being recalled nationwide, not a single potpie, patty, or dollop of meat sauce has caused someone to fall ill—yet.
But when the U.S. Department of Agriculture, responding to reports of safety violations at a California meatpacking plant, announced the largest recall of beef in U.S. history, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was moved to ask: "How much longer will we continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal safety regulations?"
Harkin is not the only one asking that question. The record recall, announced on Sunday and prompted by an explicit video taken by an undercover Humane Society employee, has generated outrage from members of Congress and other American consumers. The video shows downed cattle being forced from the ground with forklifts and electric shocks and prodded toward the slaughterhouse. In some shots, a cow is unable to support itself and falls over again, only to be subjected to a second round of battery.
But the primary concern has been for public health. Had the meatpacking plant followed government notification rules, the USDA says, some of the meat never would have seen the light of day, much less the inside of a gastrointestinal tract. "Downed" cows are often weak and diseased, and plant owners are required to notify USDA inspectors if a cow goes down on its way to the slaughterhouse. The USDA, which has closed the plant pending further investigation, has said that on multiple occasions no such notification took place.
Yet an estimated 37 million pounds of beef, as part of the National School Lunch Program, was sent to schools in at least 36 states, and the rest was purchased by wholesale food companies.
The recall at the California plant, which is owned by the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., is not the first such case, though it is the largest. In fact, the United States just completed what is arguably the worst year for beef safety in its history. In 2007, there were 21 beef recalls nationwide for possible E. coli contamination, the most in five years; the amount of beef recalled—33.4 million pounds—was a new record.
In many of the cases in 2007, the reason for the recall was remarkably similar to the current one: The workers at the plant allegedly didn't communicate information to the government, and the government took action only after the meat was already in the grocery store or consumed. One notable example: the recall of 21.7 million pounds of meat in September by Topps Meat, now out of business, for possible E. coli problems. Prior to the recall, Topps reportedly reduced the frequency of its safety inspections but failed to notify USDA officials.
In fact, recalls such as the Topps Meat case in 2007 are arguably more worrisome to public-health officials than the current one, even if they get less attention. The concern over "downed cows" usually stems from the possibility that they carry mad cow disease, which, though deadly, is also rare. According to Agriculture Under Secretary Richard Raymond, since 2004 only two cows out of 750,000 have tested positive for the disease. The low incidence largely reflects newer, tougher regulations that have been put into place since the 1990s, including the prohibition against downed cattle entering the food supply.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer concurred. "It is extremely unlikely that these animals were at risk for [mad cow disease] because of multiple safeguards," he said in a statement. "However, this action is necessary because plants violated...USDA regulations."
In a statement on the company's website, the president of Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., Steve Mendell, said he was "shocked and horrified" by what he had seen in the footage taken by the Humane Society of the United States and noted that his company was fully cooperating with the USDA's investigation.
The bigger concern, says Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, is the government's ability to track and eradicate E. coli and salmonella in the food supply. "Together, these organisms account for more than 2 million cases of foodborne illnesses each year," Doyle told U.S. News.
Even more alarming is the jump in beef recalls related to E. coli between 2006 and 2007. In 2006, just shy of 200,000 pounds of beef was recalled. The following year, the number rose by more than 150-fold.