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USDA Orders Record Beef Recall in Wake of Slaughterhouse Scandal

The USDA has ordered a California company to recall a record 140 million pounds of ground beef as part of a federal investigation into animal abuse and health code violations. A representative of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service discusses the recall.

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  • 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.

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