The USDA action resulted from an undercover investigation, which was carried out last fall by the Humane Society of the United States and reported on January 30th. The Humane Society investigation revealed that Hallmark/Westland was processing meat from "downer" cattle – cows that were staggering or unable to stand on their own – in contravention of USDA and California regulations. Some of the meat from the slaughtered downer cattle was supplied to school children through USDA's School Lunch Program.
On January 30th, USDA announced the immediate suspension of Hallmark/Westland as a supplier of meat to the School Lunch Program and other federal food and nutrition programs, and initiated its own investigation into the Humane Society's allegations. Today's recall is a result of the USDA investigation.
In classifying this recall as "Class II" rather than "Class I", USDA is signaling that it does not believe the recalled meat to be a significant hazard to human health. Nevertheless, downer cows are known to be more likely to carry human pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 than ambulatory cows. A study carried out in 2001 and reported in 2003 revealed that downer cows had a more than 3-fold higher chance of carrying E. coli O157:H7 than ambulatory cows.
There are still some important, unanswered questions regarding this scandalous situation:
- Why did the Humane Society wait until January 30th before releasing the results of their undercover investigation?
- Has USDA checked any of the recalled meat for E. coli O157:H7 or other pathogens?
- Where were the USDA inspectors when the downer cattle were being prodded and pushed by employees of Hallmark/Westland?