Despite the breadth of the sanction, USDA officials underscored their belief that the meat, distributed by Westland Meat Co., poses little or no hazard to consumers, and that most of it was eaten long ago.
The recall comes less than three weeks after the release of a videotape showing what the USDA later called "egregious violations" of federal animal care regulations by employees of a Westland partner, Hallmark Meat Packing in Chino, San Bernardino County.
Hallmark did not consistently bring in federal veterinarians to examine cattle headed for slaughter that were too sick or weak to stand on their own, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said. "Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection, (USDA) has determined them to be unfit for human food, and the company is conducting a recall," he said in a statement.
About 37 million pounds of the meat cuts, ground beef and prepared products such as meatballs and burrito filling went to school lunch and other public nutrition programs, and "almost all of this product is likely to have been consumed," said Ron Vogel, a USDA administrator.
However, some larger purchasersmay keep meat for as long as a year.
The USDA issued 20 meat recalls last year, including one of more than 20 million pounds, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, called on the agency to toughen its inspection requirements. "How much longer will we continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal food safety regulations?" Harkin asked.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association "support(s) USDA's recall as a precautionary measure. At the same time, we can say with confidence that the beef supply is safe. ... There are multiple safety hurdles before it arrives at our grocery stores or restaurants," said James Reagan, who chairs the organization's Beef Industry Food Safety Council.
About 150 school districts around the nation and two fast-food chains Jack in the Box and In-N-Out have announced they will no longer use ground beef from Westland. The company has been closed since Feb.4, when the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service withdrew inspectors from the Hallmark slaughterhouse after verifying the mistreatment of cattle shown on the videotape and discovering other problems at the plant.
The tape, made secretly by a slaughterhouse worker and provided to the Humane Society of the United States, showed electric shocks and high-intensity water sprays administered to cows too sick or weak to stand on their own, and using forklifts to roll such animals. Government regulations prohibit slaughtering for food cattle that cannot stand or walk on their own.
An inspecting veterinarian had said the cattle in question were healthy enough to be used for food, but they subsequently collapsed. Under federal regulations, such animals must be reexamined by a veterinarian and slaughtered separately. That apparently was not done.
One worry when an animal collapses is that it may have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the infection known as "mad cow disease." A small number of people who have eaten meat from such animals have developed a fatal brain infection. But Richard Raymond, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety, discounted the chance of BSE in any of the Hallmark/Westland cattle.
"We are very confident in the safety of the food supply," he said.
Hallmark fired two workers seen on the tape, and the men face animal cruelty charges in California. A company spokesman said senior management was not aware of the use of extreme measures to get sick cattle upright.
Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said Sunday that the recall "validates the chief finding we made, that sick and injured animals got into the food supply."
Officials at Hallmark and Westland could not be reached Sunday to comment.
The largest previous meat recall orders both covered 35 million pounds of meat and came a month apart in 1998 and 1999. Both involved ready-to-eat products contaminated with listeria. Nearly two dozen people died and about 100 fell ill.
Last September, 21.7 million pounds of Topps Meat ground beef were recalled after at least 30 were sickened from meat contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
In the Hallmark/Westland case, Raymond said, "We feel there is a very, very remote possibility of health consequences from consuming this product."