RAY SUAREZ: Now, new questions about food safety and beef. Gwen Ifill begins with this background. A note of caution: Some of the footage may be disturbing to viewers.
GWEN IFILL: A Southern California company recalled 143 million pounds of beef produced during the last two years yesterday, the largest beef recall in U.S. history.
It is unclear how much of the recalled meat — much of it frozen — has already been eaten, but government officials said most of it has already been consumed. As least 37 million pounds of the affected meat was sent to school lunch programs around the country.
The recall by Westland-Hallmark Meat Company is quadruple the size of the next largest recall; 35 million pounds of hot dogs, pork and poultry products were pulled off the market in 1999.
Fears that some of the beef was tainted by the processing of so-called “downer cows” — cattle too sick to walk — helped drive the recall. Inability to walk is sometimes a sign of so-called mad cow disease, a brain-wasting disorder that has plagued beef cattle herds in Europe and Canada.
To date, only three cases have been found in the United States. There is no indication that any of the meat recalled yesterday is infected with mad cow.
The government investigation started after the Humane Society of the United States produced an undercover video shot at the California plant. In it, some sick cattle were prodded to stand with forklifts and water hoses.
Two slaughterhouse employees were charged with animal cruelty; both have been fired.
But the recall was initiated because of inspection, not humane concerns. Downer cows are subject to special inspection rules designed to prevent contaminated meat from entering the food supply.
Last year, there were 21 beef recalls due to concerns about E. coli bacteria.
'Downers' delivered as food
GWEN IFILL: We get a closer look now at what consumers need to know about this recall from Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator with the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Welcome, Mr. Petersen.
KENNETH PETERSEN, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA: Glad to be here.
GWEN IFILL: Huge numbers we're talking about with this recall. Why so big?
KENNETH PETERSEN: We've been investigating this plant since the video became public a little over two weeks ago on January 30th. As part of that investigation, one of the early questions we wanted answered was: Did downer cattle get into the food supply?
And very late last week during the investigation, we did find evidence that on rare occasions the plant would slaughter animals -- after we'd already passed them for anti-mortem, meaning animals we found acceptable -- the plant would then, if the animal went down, go ahead and slaughter the animal. That's not acceptable.
GWEN IFILL: Is the ongoing investigation that you have going on now into this, was it about breaking the rules as existed or about actual food safety?
KENNETH PETERSEN: This one is really about a regulatory violation, so it's really more breaking the rules. We never say never in the food safety arena, but the risks associated with this recall are very, very remote.
GWEN IFILL: What do you mean by very, very remote? How can you quantify that for people? Should they be going back and pulling out all the frozen beef in their refrigerator? Should they be going to McDonald's and asking hard questions?
KENNETH PETERSEN: I think it's important for folks to understand, why do we have this ban on downer cattle in the United States? And, really, it all began with the BSE story well over a decade ago, certainly in the United Kingdom.
But in the United States, we first started taking stringent measures to protect the public in 1997. Prior to that, we've been doing surveillance on cattle for BSE, but in 1997...
GWEN IFILL: BSE being mad cow?
KENNETH PETERSEN: Being mad cow. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration put in place what's called a feed ban. That was an important firewall to prevent ongoing exposure of cattle to the BSE agent.
Then, recently we've been doing in the Department of Agriculture extensive surveillance of the cattle herd to find out how many cattle have BSE in the United States.
And in a short window of time, we sampled over 750,000 head of animals and found only two that were positive for BSE, and both of those were born prior to the feed ban, so the numbers in the United States are not zero, but they're very, very low.
GWEN IFILL: What if these animals can't walk for other reasons? We've mentioned E. coli. We've mentioned other contaminations. How do we know that the rules that are in place apply for anything else that you might not want to see in your meat?
KENNETH PETERSEN: We have two important parts to a slaughter plant. We have the outside part where, of course, live animals are. And then, once the animals enter the facility, the production practices are different, obviously, because we're producing carcasses for food at that point in time.
All of these plants -- and this plant in particular -- did have very effective interventions to control for food-borne pathogens, such as E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella.And we know that in this plant, because through the school lunch contract program we've been doing a lot of sampling for those two pathogens. And over the last year, for example, over 500 samples were taken for E. coli and O157:H7, and they were all negative.
Rule-breaking 'an aberration'
GWEN IFILL: So why did it take an undercover video from the Humane Society of the U.S. to expose what was wrong in this plant?
KENNETH PETERSEN: Well, that's a critical question, and I think that's an important question that we're trying to get an answer to in this video and in this investigation.
For example, when during the day were they doing these inhumane practices? Was it early in the shift? Was it before inspectors showed up? Was it on weekends? That's the kind of information I'm going to want answers to, and that's what the Office of Inspector General is working on.
GWEN IFILL: Is that investigation going to be limited just to this plant or are we going to be able to find out if this was an aberration or standard practice around the country in other meat slaughterhouses?
KENNETH PETERSEN: My sense is this is really an aberration.
GWEN IFILL: What is your sense based on?
KENNETH PETERSEN: Two things. One, for plants to engage in the kind of behavior is just simply unacceptable. And if they do engage in this kind of behavior and get caught, look at the sanctions at this facility.
They've been suspended; they're not operating. They're effected a very large recall. There's a tremendous cost to that.
Plants are understandably in the business of making a profit. And if you're abusing animals, you're not going to produce quality food. And all the slaughter plants in the country, really with this and very few exceptions, seem to understand that.
Plus, we look for inhumane practices in every slaughter establishment, of which there's about 900. Every day, I have inspectors present in the plant that look for these very same kind of practices.
GWEN IFILL: Are you confident that you have enough inspectors monitoring this?
KENNETH PETERSEN: We do. In a slaughter plant, when they're producing carcasses inside the plant, when the actual slaughtering process is occurring, I have 100 percent present. I am there the full time they're doing that.
On the anti-mortem inspection, we come and go throughout the day. We do anti-mortem inspection, and then I go back out throughout the day to look for inhumane handling practices.
In this facility, Hallmark-Westland, I knew that we were going back out to the anti-mortem pens about an hour-and-a-half a day randomly looking for these kind of inhumane practices.
'Low risk,' no reported illnesses
GWEN IFILL: This company put a hold on its production of beef at the beginning of February, then the recall announced yesterday. Has there in this period of time been any evidence of illness as a result of any of the products that came from that plant?
KENNETH PETERSEN: There is no evidence of illness. Again, I know from the test results and other inspection we do that the food safety standards inside the plant were being met. And we know that through our laboratory test results.
The reason for this recall is, after I looked at animals that were slaughtered, they went down, and so it's a regulatory violation. I do not think there's a significant food safety risk to the public here. And, no, there's not been any reported illnesses.
GWEN IFILL: So what should the public do if they have bought beef recently that they feel may in some way have been traced back to this plant, if it's fresh beef, less likely because it would have already moved out of the food supply, but if it's frozen beef?
KENNETH PETERSEN: Well, as part of the recall process, the plant starts to notify its customers and tell them, "Look, we have this recall, and here's the products that you bought." And then those customers, no matter who they are, will look at their production and notify their customers, "Hey, we have this product. If you bought it in this period of time, you should return it."
GWEN IFILL: When there are consumer product safety recalls, they tell us which stores sold us the bad goods. Is there a way to go to your Web site and find out which companies may have bought the bad meat?
KENNETH PETERSEN: Not yet. What I need to do is to find out the distribution. And the distribution could be hundreds, if not sometimes thousands, of locations, so we have to go point by point. Where did it go? And then where did that particular company send it?
GWEN IFILL: Kenneth Petersen with USDA, thank you very much.
KENNETH PETERSEN: Thank you.