LOS ANGELES (AP) – Federal lawmakers and watchdog groups had harsh words Monday for the U.S. Department of Agriculture after the agency ordered a recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a Southern California slaughterhouse.

Beef products dating to Feb. 1, 2006 that came from the Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. are subject to the recall, which is the largest such action in U.S. history. The notice came after the Humane Society of the United States filmed undercover video showing crippled and sick animals being shoved with forklifts – treatment that has also triggered an animal-abuse investigation.

The Connecticut congresswoman who chairs a House subcommittee that determines funding levels for the USDA sent a letter Monday to the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety demanding answers to specific questions on the Westland case before a March 5 budgetary review hearing.

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration Appropriations Subcommittee, called the video inhumane and said she was concerned it “demonstrates just how far our food safety system has collapsed.”

DeLauro, D-Conn., has also called for a independent investigation into the government’s ability to secure the safety of meat in the nation’s schools. Westland was a major supplier of beef for the National School Lunch Program.

DeLauro asked Undersecretary Dick Raymond to list schools that could have received the recalled meat, as well as provide an explanation of where the meat was sold commercially and whether it was mixed with beef from other processors.

She also asked how the agency was addressing staff shortages among slaughterhouse inspectors – an issue also raised by several food safety experts and watchdog groups Monday.

Anywhere from 7 percent to 21 percent of inspector positions were left vacant by the USDA depending on the district, said Felicia Nestor, a senior policy analyst with Washington, D.C.-based Food and Water Watch.

“They just don’t fill vacancies,” Nestor said. “The agency … is telling consumers we have enough inspectors in these plants to go out and be doing these checks and they don’t and they refuse to keep records of it.”

USDA spokesman Keith Williams said the agency did not have a shortage of inspectors. He said his department has evidence that Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cattle became non-ambulatory after passing inspection, violating health regulations.

Williams said the recall was done primarily to revoke the USDA’s seal of inspection for the meat – not because of the risk of illness.

“Everybody’s going, ‘Oh, a recall, that means death, that means sickness.’ That’s a different kind of issue,” Williams said. “This is a lower severity, where there would be a remote probability of sickness.”

A phone message left for Westland president Steve Mendell was not returned Monday.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin said the sentator’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry would take up several unspecified food safety issues after it finishes rewriting a farm bill.

“What we’re concerned with is that the current set of regulations is not being enforced,” said Kate Cyrul, a spokeswoman for Harkin, D-Iowa. “These regulations exist for a reason.”

Agriculture officials said the massive recall surpasses a 1999 ban of 35 million pounds of ready-to-eat meats. No illnesses have been linked to the newly recalled meat, and officials said the health threat was likely small.

Officials estimate that about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school programs, but they believe most of the meat probably has already been eaten.

“We don’t know how much product is out there right now. We don’t think there is a health hazard, but we do have to take this action,” said Raymond, the USDA undersecretary.

Two former Westland employees were charged Friday. Five felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanors were filed against a pen manager. Three misdemeanor counts – illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal – were filed against an employee who worked under that manager. Both were fired.

Authorities said the video showed workers kicking, shocking and otherwise abusing “downer” animals that were apparently too sick or injured to walk into the slaughterhouse. Some animals had water forced down their throats, San Bernardino County prosecutor Michael Ramos said.

No charges have been filed against Westland, but an investigation by federal authorities continues.

About 150 school districts around the nation have stopped using ground beef from Hallmark Meat Packing Co., which is associated with Westland. Two fast-food chains, Jack-In-the-Box and In-N-Out, said they would not use beef from Westland/Hallmark.

Most of the beef was sent to distribution centers in bulk packages. The USDA said it will work with distributors to determine how much meat remains.

A coalition of advocacy groups called on the agency Monday to enact a rule change proposed in 2006 that would allow consumers to track where tainted beef was sold.

“At this point, when they have a recall, what they put on the Web site is the states the meat went to and the lot numbers,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. “That’s not very helpful to the ordinary consumer.”

Federal regulations call for keeping downed cattle out of the food supply because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease since they typically wallow in feces and their immune systems are often weak.

Associated Press writers Jacob Adelman and AP videographer John Mone contributed to this report.

AP-ES-02-18-08 1937EST


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