WASHINGTON — Last week's recall of 143 million pounds of beef by Chino, Calif.-based Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. — the largest beef recall in U.S. history — has led to new calls for overhauling the nation's food safety and inspection processes.
Retailers sought to reassure customers, and some told SN they were wary of potential consumer backlash.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, said during a press conference last week that she planned to hold hearings in March with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service to determine why the agency had failed to notice or address violations at the plant earlier. She will also hold a separate investigation regarding the supplier's work with the USDA's school lunch program, she said, “to ensure that the school lunch program does not become the industry's dumping ground for bad meat.”
Hallmark/Westland had been the second-largest meat supplier to the U.S. public school system, providing between 37 million and 55 million pounds of beef to schools between February 2006 and February 2008, the period affected by the recall.
The recall was sparked by undercover video footage released earlier this year by the Humane Society of the United States, a Washington-based animal rights and food activism group. In the video, which has since become widely available on the Internet, several cows that cannot or will not walk on their own are pushed by forklifts, dragged by chains or shocked with cattle prods to try to move them through the plant's holding and slaughter facilities — a clear violation of the USDA's rules against processing what are called “downer” cattle.
Several retailers, including Safeway, A&P, Whole Foods Market and King Kullen, last week emphasized to shoppers and regional media outlets that their stores did not carry any products from Westland/Hallmark, and were unaffected by the recall. But others noted that the size of the recall — along with the disturbing video footage that led to it — and its association with school lunch programs could impact consumer shopping habits in the near term, regardless.
“We've been telling [our customers] the truth, which is that we don't have any of that product on our shelves,” said Tanney Staffenson, a partner with Wilsonville, Ore.-based Lambs Markets and advisor to Unified Western Grocers. “But this really shakes their confidence a little bit overall, even though it's not ours. When something like this happens, it hurts the whole industry.”
Randy Irion, director of retail marketing services for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said that retailers he had spoken with early in the week had noticed no immediate changes in their shoppers' beef purchasing habits, but he acknowledged that the video would likely raise concerns about humane animal treatment among many consumers.
“[Retailers] need to continue to give the assurances that this was a clear violation of protocol and needs to be prosecuted,” he said, adding that several safeguards help ensure that the U.S. beef supply remains at low risk for potential problems associated with downer cattle, such as mad-cow disease.