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Why was the beef recalled? continued...

Since July 2007, U.S. food regulations say cattle unable to stand on their own ("downer" cattle) may not be used as food unless they are inspected and found to be healthy except for acute injuries, such as a broken leg, that make them unable to walk.

These regulations were put in place to ensure that animals infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- BSE or mad cow disease -- did not enter the food supply.

The USDA says there's evidence that Hallmark/Westland has been violating this rule since Feb. 1, 2006. In a statement posted on the Westland web site, Steve Mendell, president of Westland Meat Co., says his company has conducted all required inspections and has taken "swift action" regarding two employees shown in the Humane Society video (local authorities have charged the two employees with felony animal cruelty).

Could I get mad cow disease from the recalled beef?

Richard Raymond, MD, USDA undersecretary for food safety, said at a news conference that a U.S. surveillance program has examined 750,000 downer cattle in the U.S. since 2004. Only two of these animals were found to have BSE. Neither entered the food chain.

Moreover, Raymond noted that the animals apparently mistreated at the Hallmark/Westland plant were 5 to 7 years old, which means they were raised after the U.S. prohibited the use of potentially BSE-contaminated animal products in cattle feed in 1997.

Cattle don't catch BSE from one another. They get it only by eating feed made from the brains, spines, or small intestines of animals with BSE. Since the ban on such feed, BSE has become extremely rare.

For these reasons, the USDA says the risk of anyone getting BSE from the recalled meat is "negligible."

Jeff Bender, DVM, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota, agrees with this assessment.

"We have very little evidence there is any BSE out there in the U.S.," Bender tells WebMD.

Are other meat-processing plants doing the same thing?

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service says it "believes" that the "egregious violations of humane handling requirements" that appear to have happened at the Hallmark/Westland plant are "an isolated incident."

The USDA says it has no plans to increase inspection efforts at other plants. The FSIS notes that it has 7,800 inspectors who provide a "continuous presence" at the 6,200 federally inspected establishments, 900 of which slaughter livestock.

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