The largest meat recall in U.S. history was bound to reverberate throughout the food-manufacturing world. So far, four major food manufacturers — ConAgra, General Mills, Heinz and Nestlé — have acknowledged that meat involved in the 143 million-pound recall, announced Feb. 17, was used in some of their products.
So why haven't those products been recalled?
They have been — very quietly.
Nestlé, General Mills, Heinz and ConAgra each acknowledged to news organizations that they have recalled products containing beef from the meatpacking company Hallmark/Westland.
Those products include two versions of Nestlé's Hot Pocket sandwiches, Heinz's Boston Market lasagna with meat sauce, General Mills' Progresso Italian Wedding Soup and a variety of meat products from ConAgra, ranging from Slim Jim snacks to Hunt's Manwich Original Sloppy Joe Sauce.
The companies stressed that the use of Hallmark/Westland meat was limited, and that they notified retailers and told them to pull those products.
But none had taken the usual step of notifying consumers through news releases and warnings on Web sites.
Why the secrecy? In part because the recall is indirect; the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urged Hallmark/Westland to contact food producers that use its meat and urge them to pull their products. But the USDA did not contact food producers.
The food manufacturers said they are under no obligation to notify consumers.
The Hallmark/Westland recall is considered a Class II recall under U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, which means there is a remote risk of adverse human-health effects.
But food-safety advocates said ordinary shoppers have been forgotten.
"It's better to fess up and be open and honest with your consumers," said Bill Marler, a lawyer who often sues companies on behalf of food-poisoning victims. "It makes consumers more comfortable with your product, not less comfortable."
Company officials said their understanding was that the USDA wanted them to notify only retailers. "There was not a requirement for public notification through USDA because the health risk is negligible," said Nestlé spokeswoman Roz O'Hearn.
General Mills spokeswoman Kirstie Foster said, "This is not a consumer recall. According to USDA, consumers do not need to take action."
ConAgra asked grocers carrying the affected products to remove them. A spokeswoman said consumers will be reimbursed upon request, but the company's Web sites don't mention that offer.
Heinz said only a "small portion" of recalled ground beef was used in its lasagna and it is working with stores "to ensure the recalled product is removed from store shelves."
Amanda Eamich, of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the department's recall directly named only Hallmark/Westland, not its customers. But USDA did tell Hallmark/Westland to ask the manufacturers that use its meat to pull their products. She acknowledged the agency did not ask that consumers be notified.
"Companies can certainly choose to do so if they'd like," Eamich said. "But our goal is to make sure that products are controlled and destroyed."
Hallmark/Westland and the USDA announced the meat recall after the Humane Society of the United States released a video that showed dairy cows bound for slaughter being mistreated at the company's Chino, Calif., slaughter plant.
The mistreated cows were "downers," unable to stand because of undetermined ailments. The slaughter of downers is strictly regulated; the USDA requires an inspection, and only those whose ailments pose no risk to food, such as a broken leg, can be slaughtered.
The video led to the recall and to the closing of the Chino plant and criminal charges against two former Hallmark/Westland employees. The USDA is conducting an investigation and has put two inspectors who were working at the plant on administrative leave.
Richard Raymond, the USDA undersecretary for food safety, told Congress last week that recalled Hallmark/Westland meat went to more than 10,000 distributors and food manufacturers, including the USDA's own nutrition programs — including the school-lunch program — which bought 50 million pounds of meat.
About 100 school districts in Washington state, including in Seattle, received raw beef from Hallmark/Westland in November and December. In late January, the USDA advised schools to stop using the beef.
Raymond said USDA regulations prevent the department from disclosing Hallmark/Westland's customers because such information is considered proprietary. Food-safety groups argued for lifting that restriction.
The food producers involved emphasized that their use of Hallmark/Westland meat was limited.
"A very small amount of those products is impacted," said Teresa Paulsen, of ConAgra. "That's because we produced product with beef sourced from Westland on only a few days. In fact, less than two-tenths of 1 percent of our overall product volume is impacted."
Foster, of General Mills, said Hallmark/Westland was not a supplier to the company. Instead, she said, the meat company was a vendor to one of General Mills' suppliers and the recalled meat made it into 35,000 cases of Progresso Italian Wedding Soup "for a very short time."
Nestlé's O'Hearn said the Hallmark/Westland recall affected the company "in a very minor way" and just "two days of production on one line in one facility" are being recalled.
Marler, the lawyer, criticized the department for its handling of the Hallmark/Westland recall, which he said was too broad to be effective. The recall covered meat produced from Feb. 1, 2006, to Feb. 2, 2008, an unusually long period for perishable food.
USDA officials said most of the recalled meat likely had been consumed. They said no illnesses linked to the meat have been reported.
Stephen J. Hedges - Chicago Tribune - March 12, 2008 - posted at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com