USDA ordered the largest meat recall in history, after further investigation showed that the Hallmark meatpacking company sold meat from "downer" cattle that were too sick to stand, according to reports yesterday in the Washington Post and elsewhere. All of the meatpacker's products for the past two years, 143 million pounds of meat, were recalled. Most of it has already been eaten, including by school children served the beef as part of the National School Lunch Program.
U.S. Food Policy earlier discussed the Humane Society video, which first exposed the practice. A later post linked to the response from Hallmark officials, who seemed surprised at the public scrutiny of their record.
The meat was recalled because Hallmark failed to have all downer cattle evaluated by a veterinarian. This evaluation is important because of concern that the cattle might have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or "mad cow disease."
Mad Cow Disease is a particularly distressing dilemma in food safety policy, because it combines a very low incidence with a devastating potential health outcome (in some cases in the earlier outbreak in the United Kingdom, death, perhaps years after exposure). I imagine that, if they could be compelled to release their own honest guess, most meat industry experts and government officials would put the probability of a BSE outbreak in the United States above zero but less than 5 percent. Honestly, my own guess for this probability is only a little higher. The place where reasonable people differ greatly is whether stronger safety measures should be taken in this deeply uncertain setting.
If the risk of an outbreak is fairly small, and the consequences devastating, why do industry organizations resist broader testing for BSE? Currently, only a sample of cattle is tested. It seems implausible that the cost of the tests themselves is really the hurdle, though that is what some claim. Perhaps, industry officials suspect that there really are a handful of living BSE prion carriers in the U.S. cattle population, and the cattlemen don't look forward to the news reports when they are uncovered by testing. Perhaps they prefer to hope that current practices suffice to let the exposed cattle die off.
You may be surprised that USDA reacted with a record-sized recall, given that officials do not really believe the meat is very dangerous. The Department was caught in a jam created by its own past positions on BSE. USDA says that universal testing of cattle for BSE is economically infeasible and unnecessary, because current practices such as the veterinarian inspection provide assurance that BSE-infected cattle cannot reach the human food supply.
USDA officials knew that, if they failed to handle the Hallmark recall by the book, the public would question their commitment to all of the handling practices required for BSE prevention. It was that bigger threat to public confidence in the national meat supply overall that forced the hands of the USDA officials this week.