The Checkout

Where's the beef?

Since we got so many comments about the meat entry last week, I figured I'd take the opportunity to answer a question that I've been asked a lot lately.

The question is: how can I tell if I bought meat that was part of the Feb. 17 Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. recall?

The reason this is still being asked is because the initial recall notice didn't list the retail stores that may have sold the recalled meat or products that contain it. Instead, the recall notice lists things such as "Various weight boxes of Westland Meat Co., Ground Pork For Further Processing Not to Exceed 30 % Fat" -- the kind of label you don't see at the meat counter.

According to Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the U.S., which sparked the recall with its video of inhumane treatment of cows at the Hallmark plant, that slaughterhouse specialized in handling so-called "spent" dairy cows that can't produce milk any more. Meat from such cows isn't considered good enough for steaks and usually winds up in cooked products such as premade burritos or, you know, your kid's school lunch. (And to think Sloppy Joe day was my favorite.)

The long food chain also means the folks who make the burritos or Sloppy Joe mix are just finding out themselves, as each customer down the chain notifies his customers and so on. But the news is still not likely to reach us because, according to USDA spokeswoman Amanda Eamich, a meat processor's customer list is considered proprietary and not releasable for, uh, public consumption.

USDA officials realize this is problematic for consumers and a few years back began work on a regulation to change that. The public comment period is over, but so far, there's been no sign of the new regulation.

Last week, Consumers Union asked USDA to release the names of the retail stores that sold products containing the recalled meat.

So far, however, there's no list.

I've asked the American Meat Institute, which represents the beef industry, to chime in as well on the issue of disclosing customer lists and I'll post their thoughts as soon as I get them.

I would point out that this knowledge gap in meat recalls can happen in reverse too. When there's a recall prompted by, say, an outbreak at a hamburger joint, the meat is typically traced back as far as the processor. There are processors who aren't happy about this, since they blame the slaughterhouses for sending them contaminated meat to begin with.

I've prattled on long enough. It's your turn. Do you think USDA should release the names of the retailers who sold products containing recalled meat? Have any of you asked your grocery store manager if your store bought any of the meat? And if so, what were you told?

By Annys Shin |  February 26, 2008; 9:00 AM ET Consumer News
Previous: Your meat isn't sick. It's just non-ambulatory. | Next: Where's the beef addendum


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It's fascinating that debates in U.S. Food Policy often turn on the question, "who gets access to which information?"

Posted by: Parke | February 26, 2008 10:08 AM

There's nothing new about the treatment of all animals in slaughter houses. My father worked in a meat-packing plant after WWII and he would never eat hot dogs, lunch meat, and was very wary of ground beef. He saw what went into it. This treatment has been going on for generations, before snoopy cameras were allowed inside their walls. If slaughterhouses had glass walls we'd all be vegetarian.

The worst was Kosher day when rabbis would slit the throats of animals hanging upside down and they'd bleed to death. All in the name of religion. Bleating in horror as life drained out of them. Think on that the next time you sit down to a nice brisket.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 26, 2008 10:22 AM

The USDA should release the names of the E. Coli Republicans who failed to keep our food supply safe and failed to protect our children. The Bushies in Christ were wasting taxpayer money sitting in offices looking at porn all day while health inspectors were slashed and children were dying from contaminated food. Osama bin Laden is laughing while innocent women and children are digesting Bush's bacteria-laden policies.

Posted by: The Idaho Hall of Fame Quartet | February 26, 2008 10:29 AM

I could not agree more with Idaho Hall of Fame. We have unleashed our own American WMD on children of America. Of course those children who will come down with Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad-cow disease. As you know it is a fatal, neurodegenerative disease in cattle, that causes a spongy degeneration in the brain and spinal cord.Those who will suffer this in 20 years are children of public schools not children of the meat packing lobby or Republican advocates of small government who are private schooled. What to they care about poor and middle class children---nothing. For them it is thinning the herd so they can have more.

Get a grip America we are being killed in a class struggle in great numbers by our own government.

Posted by: NYC | February 26, 2008 10:37 AM

I don't understand how the USDA can have a list of banned pet food and who sells them, but not of list of places that might have sold the bad beef. Is my life not worth more than Fidos? Sometime I feel like screaming at the powers-that-be: I have opposable thumbs, I can vote, care about me!

Posted by: melissamac1 | February 26, 2008 11:07 AM

I can't understand why I keep going back. For twenty years I've been hearing stories about how people (like the earlier poster's father) who knew too well what went on in slaughterhouses and who swear off all/most/many/some meat products. I've seen the videos, and read the articles about cruelty, the recalls, the food poisoning incidents over the years, yet I still choose to eat those meat products that I'm pretty certain come from the disgusting conditions in the slaughterhouses.

I know what the animals may have gone through to give me that ground beef, yet I continue to order those tacos. What's wrong with me?

Posted by: Blech! | February 26, 2008 11:37 AM

It seems this isn't the only industry to hold back customer information. About a year ago, I was issued a new credit card. The bank said it was a precaution because a retailer had inadvertently released credit card information that could be used to steal my identity. I thanked them for this, and asked who was the retailer that did this? I still have not received an answer.

Posted by: MSchafer | February 26, 2008 12:11 PM

melissamac1, its not that the USDA doesn't have a list, its that they do not want to publish it. At this point it's pretty moot anyway since most if not all the recalled beef has already been eaten.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 26, 2008 12:13 PM

"Sometime I feel like screaming at the powers-that-be: I have opposable thumbs, I can vote, care about me!"

This gets right to the heart of it. The culture of meat processing means producers can't afford to care about how much animals suffer, and that includes animals with and without opposable thumbs. The infecting of public schoolchildren with BSE is of equivalent concern to the misery of crippled cows being forced into the kill chute - i.e., neither is as important as the producer's profit margin.

When Americans wake up to the fact that they've been played for chumps all along by the meat and dairy industry, more will find the will to change their habits and cut off funding (buying) this abuse. "Blech!," you sound pretty close.

Posted by: Vance | February 26, 2008 2:36 PM

"Happy Cows Come From California" They've got to be kidding! Want to bet this slogan gets changed in a hurry?

Posted by: obie2 | February 26, 2008 6:09 PM

There's a definite catch-22 involved here. The reason that we're not being made aware of potential producers/providers galls me because it's simply wrong to not allow us to know what we're ingesting. It's like Big Brother, right? What WE say is OK, regardless of what OUR instincts & general good sense might tell us.

On the other hand, if all potential sources of contaminated products-whether they turn out to be part of the problem or not - are released to the public, the economic impact would be immense. Dozens if not hundreds of companies large and small would suffer enormous financial damages that would probably cause a huge number of business closures.

I know this seems inconsequential & immaterial in the face of possible exposure to BSE (which I thought was a potential problem in specific genetically pre-disposed persons but I'm not a geneticist), but in the long run it could be a disaster to our already struggling economy. The loss of so many businesses in only one or two industries could create huge price increases across the board - not just in the meat industries. Factor in the lost jobs, tax profits, real estate loss, etc., it could be a real disaster.

So it's a tough call from the economic standpoint. From an ethical standpoint, yes - we need to know something, anything. I just checked out the FDA site & was shocked that there wasn't even a MENTION of this problem. It's like, "If we pretend it isn't happening, it will go away."

I'm also curious - why in the past 5-6 years have we suddenly developed so much trouble with our food sources?! This is the sort of thing that I'd expect in a developing country, not the US. Hmm, wonder what has our govt & funding so tied up?

Posted by: Loralei | February 26, 2008 10:52 PM

This isn't about e-coli...this is about Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)! Fallen cows being placed into the food supply! Yes thats right Mad Cow disease! A new American Cover up! Hey, it is 20 years incubation period! Those that have perpetrated this will be long gone! Americans really do not get it that we are allwoing this to happen! We should be boycotting, changing diets and asking "How in the hell is this happening?" This shoukld be on page one of every news story in the USA! Instead we talk about OJ, Britanny Spears, Paris Hilton etc! Lets get real folks! Wake up!

Posted by: Jim In Atlanta | February 27, 2008 12:54 AM

what makes me mad also is that there is no list and that one of the grocery stores here had a grand opening and out of all the free things [41,000 new items i heard] they could have passed out- what did they choose to pass out? packages of hamburger meat. that burns me up, mine's goin right into the trash, no mad cow for me thanks...

Posted by: no beef | February 27, 2008 4:49 AM

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