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What You Need to Know About the Biggest U.S. Beef Recall

Feb. 18, 2008 -- Americans already have eaten most of the 143.4 million pounds of beef involved in this week's biggest-ever U.S. meat recall.

Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture says consumers are at little risk -- even if they did eat the meat.

It's a confusing issue. Here's WebMD's guide to what's going on.

Exactly what meat products were involved? Are they still in stores?

Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. of Chico, Calif., slaughters cattle and uses them to produce raw and frozen beef products ranging from hamburger meat to beef bile. The recalled beef includes all products made by this company over the two-year period from Feb. 1, 2006, to Feb. 2, 2008, when the USDA suspended plant operations.

During those two years, Hallmark/Westland produced 143,383,823 pounds of beef products. All of it has been recalled.

Since October 2006, 37 million pounds of this beef went to federal school lunch programs and other domestic assistance programs such as the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

It is not yet clear where the rest of the beef was sold. However, USDA officials believe most of the beef already has been consumed, as most of it is a raw beef product with a very brief shelf life.

Exact product descriptions can be viewed in a document at the USDA web site. All Westland products carry the company's federal establishment number -- EST 336 -- as well as the packing date.

Why does the USDA say the risk is low?

The risk is low because no contaminated or infected beef has been found and because no human illnesses have been linked to the recalled beef.

Why was the beef recalled?

According to the USDA, Hallmark/Westland voluntarily recalled the products because of allegations that the company failed to properly inspect cattle prior to slaughter.

A video released by the Humane Society of the United States vividly documents inhumane treatment of cattle at the Hallmark/Westland facility. It showed cows that were unable to walk being repeatedly shocked, sprayed in the nose with high-pressure hoses, and shoved with forklifts in order to make them stand.

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