The Wall Street Journal reported this morning on something that probably does not come as a surprise to those who watched the video and have seen the largest recall in US History –  Hallmark/Westland will be closing its doors.

250 workers have been laid off. On top of the horrible video and the massive recall, now the USDA said Thursday that it intends to require that Hallmark/Westland, a leading supplier to the National School Lunch Program, pay for the costs associated with destroying and replacing meat submitted to the program. In the quote that says it all:

"If the USDA wants payment back, we’re dead meat. We’re done," said Mr. Magidow, 46 years old, who has worked at the company for more than 15 years. "There’s no way we could pay it all back."

Following last years bankruptcy of Topps after a 21.7 million pound recall, and Hudson Foods closing its doors after recalling 25 million pounds of hamburger in 1997 in the largest U.S. meat recall after E. coli was found in the ground beef, it should not be a surprise that recalling 143 million pounds of meat would have some negative impact.

The downer cow problem is not new.  A 2006 audit (PDF) by the USDA’s inspector general found downer cows were still being processed for food and that USDA’s policy was inconsistent. At two of 12 plants visited from June 2004 to April 2005, downer cattle were slaughtered for food. One facility processed 27 of them, the other slaughtered two.

But, was this massive recall really necessary? Rumor has it that this massive meat recall will be expanded to food items – tomato sauce, burritos, pizzas – what else? To date, there are no ill people. Is this really necessary – especially the potential for an expanded one.  As I said in USA Today – Impact of beef recall widens; soups, sauces affected:

The breadth of affected products took even department critics by surprise. "It’s almost overkill," says William Marler, a leading plaintiff’s attorney in E. coli cases. Given the low risk, destroying so much food "is just an enormous waste of resources," he says.

"Recalls should be reserved for products that put the public at risk, and this isn’t it," Marler says.

See the below email I was inadvertently forwarded:

From: Petersen, Kenneth
Sent: Thu Feb 21 17:36:43 2008
Subject: FW: Hallmark Recall follow up
This information was also shared with DMs.
Just confirming some notes I made on our earlier discussion re: Hallmark Recall. We are effecting the recall in accordance with Directive 8080.1.

1. As Alameda District indicated on the call, by now, the primary consignees of Hallmark have been notified of the recalled products that they received. Alameda will be verifying with Hallmark that such notification has actually occurred. District Offices should be promptly deploying appropriate personnel to verify that these firms have notified their consignees, controlled available product on premise, and collect any subsequent distribution information. Promptly notify Alameda DRO of subsequent distribution locations
2. Firms with large distribution should focus their initial notification on products produced since, approximately, July 1, 2007.
3. Firms with receipt of Hallmark product or distribution that pre-dates July 1, 2007, may request a reasonable time to gather that information. Reasonable would be up to 7 calendar days.
4. Firms, at any level of distribution, are not expected to notify consignees if the distributed products from that firm have a documented use by date that has expired. Products with recently expired use by dates, such as those within the last 30 days, will necessitate supporting documentation to substantiate the lack of consignee notification. For products without a use by date, supporting decision-making documentation, such as customer use practices, or consignee throughput, may also be used to support industry notification decisions. Inspection personnel will verify acceptable decision-making associated with consignee notification.
5. In accordance with 8080.1, down stream consignees are to follow the notification from the supplying firm.
6. Firms that believe their final product formulation contains an "infinitesimal" quantity of the product associated with the recall may submit a justification to the district manager to support that decision. Small measurable quantities (e.g., 0.5%) would not be considered "infinitesimal".

All for a Class Two Recall.  Hmmm, what’s really going on here?

  • Paul Nunes

    I think it’s fair to ask that meat processing plants (and importers) be mandated by federal law to carry certain levels of non-cancellable insurance. This would have 2 conspicuous effects: 1 There would be money in the event of a castrophe to pay for damages etc. 2 The carriers (to protect their exposure) would actually inspect these plants– and do better job than our government is doing! (Pardon my Sunday morning rant! Keep up the great work, Bill!)

  • Bill, I’m not sure I’m following your line of thinking. Here and in your previous post, it seems like you’re saying that the govt. is overreacting, given that there were no (identified) illnesses and low mad cow risk. Do you really think that this all just a bunch of sound and fury? From where I’m sitting it seems like if there’s evidence that this company consistently didn’t comply with USDA rules for safe processing, then the meat from this company shouldn’t be human food grade. Is this a huge recall? Is it incredibly expensive? Is there a good chance that they’ll go the way of Topps? Well, sure. But isn’t that how companies (and we as a society) learn to do better? It should be LESS expensive to comply with the rules (both the company and the USDA inspectors) than it is to ignore the rules. What am I missing?

  • Homer W.

    Bill, thanks for your work on this issue, but please don’t minimize the risk that downer cattle may pose to the food supply.
    Some diseases may take years to develop (vCJD, cancer). So far as I can determine, neither the FDA/USDA, nor anyone else, knows what are the long term effects of consuming tainted meat products.
    IMHO, we are much too lax in this country with the food supply.