RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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It's the single largest beef recall in U.S. history. The Department of Agriculture has ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of beef produced by a meat processor here in Southern California, much of it was destined for school lunch programs and low-income families.
The recall began with an alarming video tape released by the Humane Society. And a warning: Some of you may find descriptions of scenes in that videotape disturbing. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The tape, shot as part of an undercover investigation by the Human Society of the United States, is shocking.
(Soundbite of mooing)
BATES: As the cow's knees buckle, she's scooped up on a forklift and dumped into a pen, where she thrashes about in mud and feces trying to raise herself. A worker repeatedly pokes her with an electric prod in a vain effort to get her on her feet.
(Soundbite of mooing)
BATES: In another section of the video, workers in blue jumpsuits punch, kick and drag cattle across feces-speared floors en route to their slaughter. This was videotaped at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Processing Company in Southern California. On Friday, San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos charged the manager with cruelty to animals - a felony.
Mr. MIKE RAMOS (District Attorney, San Bernardino County): In reviewing this case myself as the district attorney, it makes your stomach turn to see what they did to the cows in this situation.
BATES: Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recalled 143 million pounds of beef shipped by Hallmark/Westland going back to 2006. The USDA forbids the use of cattle that can't walk - or downer cows - for human consumption.
Human Society President Wayne Pacelle described the Hallmark/Westland plant as a magnet for these cows.
President WAYNE PACELLE (Human Society of the United States): Downer cows were coming in from dairies in the Southwest, California and Arizona. And they were being prodded and tormented and tortured to get them walking to get them into the slaughterhouse so this meat processor could squeeze every last dime out of these hapless animals.
BATES: Hallmark/Westland didn't return NPR's calls, but the New York Times reported that the company's president said he was horrified by the video and had voluntarily suspended operations until the federal investigation was complete.
The recall is categorized as class two, meaning the Agriculture Department feels there is a remote probability that the beef could make someone sick. In a statement, newly appointed Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said it is extremely unlikely that the downer cows were at risk for bovine spongiform encephalopathy - or mad cow disease. Cows destined for slaughter undergo a series of inspections between the ranch and the slaughterhouse.
Kim Essex, a spokesperson for the National Beef Cattlemen's Association, says the Agriculture Department's safety requirements are stringent enough that Hallmark/Westland is the exception, not the rule.
Ms. KIM ESSEX (Spokesperson, National Beef Cattlemen's Association): There are multiple hurdles the beef has to pass in order to hit our plates or arrive at restaurants. And the fact of the matter is, one of those safeguards was not achieved in this company.
BATES: School districts nationwide are pulling Hallmark/Westland meat from their menus. Essex says she's not worried about America's overall beef supply.
Ms. ESSEX: As a mom who has two young children, I'm comfortable with the beef that is produced in this country. I believe it is safe.
BATES: Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, doesn't share Essex's confidence. The question, Harkin said in a statement last week, is how much longer will we have to continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal food safety regulations?
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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