At press time, four U.S. Senators had introduced bipartisan legislation seeking tougher penalties, including permanent closure, for firms that process downer cattle. The legislation would impose fines for first-time offenders that slaughter downers, with a second violation bringing a one-year closure. A permanent shutdown would await third-time offenders.

Sponsor Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) says USDA currently only suspends inspection of a facility following a violation until the facility either corrects the violation or submits a corrective-action plan.

The bill also would require the release by USDA of the names of establishments that receive recalled products. “This will help distributors, retailers and consumers to better identify and more quickly get recalled products off their shelves and out of their homes,” she says.

All sorts of groups are pushing for the release of the names of thousands of establishments — from food distributors and processors to grocery stores and restaurants — that sold the recalled meat.

The bill was the latest in the tempest that's raged since an undercover video by a Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) operative went public. It depicted downer dairy cattle being tortured by workers to take their last pitiful steps to the kill box of Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. in Chino, CA.

Meghann Sapp, BEEF correspondent in Brussels, Belgium, tells me the video also saw a lot of play in Europe. “Really appalling,” she said. And trade officials have reported that the images are being cited by opponents in trade talks to question the safety of U.S. beef.

What makes matters worse domestically is that school cafeterias in 36 states reportedly received product from Hallmark/Westland, which was USDA's second-largest supplier of meat to the federal school lunch program. Most of the product is believed already consumed, however. There have been no reported illnesses.

A statement issued by Westland Meat President Steve Mendell called the practices depicted in the surreptitious HSUS video: “a serious breach of our company's policies and training.”

Yet, based on testimony from a worker who started work at the facility in February 2006, such animal abuse had been commonplace since at least that time. That's what drove USDA to recall two years' worth of production — a total of 134 million lbs.

Hallmark/Westland management was either disengaged to the point of being criminally negligible or they tacitly condoned the abuse — neither of which speaks well of the professionalism and/or humanity of these folks.

Nor is USDA free of blame. In a time when everything USDA seems to touch disintegrates into a debacle on some scale, this is one of the worst for all concerned. After all, Hallmark/Westland was cited as a supplier of the year by the National School Lunch Program in 2005.

But those within the industry who would celebrate another embarrassment for U.S. packers and USDA should be advised that the fingers of this fiasco could eventually reach inside everyone's farm gates.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has indicated he'd like the Senate to address food safety this spring.

And Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) recently remarked that the massive recall shows it's time to have a national animal identification system. The Des Moines Register reports the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee as saying that: “This is a matter of public safety, and we've got to get to it very soon.”