The tentacles of the largest beef recall in history – 143,383,823 lbs. – have reached all across the country. If the surreptitious video of exhausted and disabled dairy cattle being tortured to take their last few steps to the kill box of the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, CA weren’t disturbing enough, local papers around the country were heralding coverage on school districts that utilized product from the offending firm in their cafeterias.

Reportedly, school cafeterias in 36 states received product from Hallmark/Westland, which is USDA’s second-largest supplier of meat to the federal school lunch program. Most of the voluntarily recalled meat is thought to be already consumed, and there have been no reported illnesses. Rather, federal meat inspection services were pulled because the firm “did not consistently contact the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with FSIS regulations,” USDA says.

The company actually consists of two operations. Hallmark Meat Packing is the processor, and Westland Meat Co. marketed the product. Incidentally, the firm was cited as a supplier of the year by the National School Lunch Program in 2005. Last year, the federal government purchased nearly $39 million of ground beef from Westland/Hallmark out of total annual sales of roughly $100 million.

Charges filed

At press time, media reported two workers – one 49 years old and the other 32 years old – had been charged in the incident. Of course, management was out in front, at first claiming the footage was fake, and later crying ignorance of the conditions.

In a statement posted on the company’s website, president Steve Mendell said: “Words cannot accurately express how shocked and horrified I was at the depictions contained on the video that was taken by an individual who worked at our facility from October 3 thru [sic] November 14, 2007.”

It made me think of what animal-handling guru Temple Grandin told me a few years ago when we worked together on an article on the audits she was conducting of animal-handling practices in the nation’s packing plants. She said the number- one factor governing the quality of animal handling in such facilities was the attitude of management. If management is engaged and forceful, these types of incidents don’t happen.

A watershed incident?

The fallout over the incident is tough to gauge at this point, but it has all the makings of a watershed incident – egregious cruelty toward animals, dirty conditions that can stir wonder about the quality of the overall meat supply, plus a reach that extends right into our kids’ cafeterias.

While anti-meat groups gloat over the coup, politicians are lining up for their turn in front of the camera. Among them is Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration Appropriations Subcommittee, who is leading a Democratic call for “an independent government investigation into the safety of meat in the National School Lunch Program.”

With the Humane Society of the U.S. − which planted the undercover worker and released the footage − claiming to have such moles currently embedded in a handful of other livestock operations as well, brace yourself for more potentially bad news about “factory farming.” That is, unless all industry players strive to prove Hallmark is indeed an isolated incident