The Fatal Recall System

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The Fatal Recall System

August 2010

The U.S. government is the only government in the Western world that does not have the power to recall contaminated animal products—instead, consumers in America must trust the profit-hungry meat, dairy, and egg companies to decide when recalls are necessary.

Dan Glickman, secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton, explained: “I do not have the authority to order a [mandatory] recall. Most folks would be shocked to know that.” He went on to say that this limit on the USDA’s power to protect consumers from tainted animal products is “one of the biggest loopholes out there.”33

The meat, dairy, and egg industries are predictably slow in ordering recalls because they do not want to deal with bad publicity and lost profits. High-ranking USDA officials are often complicit in delaying recalls because they are very reluctant to hurt the pocketbook of the meat industry. For example, the timeline of a recent ConAgra recall shows that sickness and death could have been avoided if the USDA had acted promptly to trace meat contaminated with E. coli to the massive animal-processing plant that was clearly its source. By the time the USDA orders tests and contamination is revealed, it is often too late to find much of the tainted product. Researchers have found that half of all recalled meat remains in grocery stores, where it is eventually sold to and eaten by consumers.

Half of All Recalled Meat Is Never Recovered

Recalls are difficult to carry out, and the sheer number of companies and products involved makes contamination difficult to track. Researchers at Ohio State University found that when dangerously contaminated meat is recalled, only about half of the meat is actually recovered—the rest remains in grocery stores. During the five-year study, 74 percent of the recalls were Class I, meaning that they posed the most serious threat to human health. Dr. Neal Hooker, a professor at Ohio State University and coauthor of the study, told reporters: “I was hoping we would see that the more hazardous cases—Class I recalls that are microbiological in nature—would be more quickly acted upon and have higher recovery rates. But the answer was no.”34

The USDA and the meat industry have responded by implying that it’s reasonable to occasionally sell tainted meat and assume that consumers will cook it properly to kill the dangerous bacteria. After hamburgers tainted with E. coli were sold at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant, sickening and killing children, the American Meat Institute sent out a news release in which its president not only refused responsibility, but also blamed the victim, claiming, “This recent outbreak sheds light on a nationwide problem: inconsistent information about proper cooking temperatures for hamburger.”35 The USDA agreed—according to Mike Espy, the secretary of agriculture at the time, “[Epsy’s colleagues in the USDA] considered the deaths acceptable.”36 Dr. Patricia Griffin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responded by asking, “Is it reasonable that if a consumer undercooks a hamburger that their three-year-old dies?”37 The former editor of Meat and Poultry magazine, Steve Bjerklie, condemned the industry for trying to shift the blame, saying, “There has been a subtle turning of this on to the consumer, and it’s morally reprehensible.”38

The Anatomy of a Recall: A Case Study

In January 2002, cow’s meat that was processed at a massive ConAgra slaughterhouse in Colorado and then sold to retailers around the country tested positive for E. coli. One small retailer, Montana Quality Foods, received some of the contaminated meat and alerted the USDA to the fact that the contaminated meat came from ConAgra and that other meat from ConAgra should be tested or recalled. The USDA refused to heed this warning. Instead of testing ConAgra’s meat, it conducted more testing at Montana Quality Foods and even briefly closed the business—all while ConAgra continued to send the tainted meat to other stores all over the country.

The USDA certainly must have known that it could get to the real source of the contamination by testing meat at the ConAgra plant, but high-ranking department officials dragged their feet, presumably in an effort to protect the meat industry giant from a costly recall. One inspector wrote, “The chances are pretty good that ConAgra is the source [of contamination], and there’s probably more of this ‘suspect’ product out in distribution, circulating like a ticking time bomb.”39

The USDA continued to harass Montana Quality Foods while refusing to investigate ConAgra. In June 2002, another small retailer received meat from ConAgra that tested positive for E. coli. Again, the USDA shut down the small business and refused to investigate ConAgra.

Finally, in late June 2002, the USDA finally cracked under mounting pressure and allowed testing of ConAgra meat. As suspected, a sample of the meat tested positive for E. coli, and ConAgra decided to recall 354,000 pounds of potentially tainted animal flesh to ward off lawsuits.

Shortly after the recall, Colorado health officials announced an outbreak of E. coli infections across the state. After all was said and done, people fell ill in 16 states, and one person died after eating the tainted beef from ConAgra.40 If the USDA had acted faster to trace the contaminated flesh to the ConAgra slaughterhouse, this deadly E. coli outbreak could have been avoided. The owner of Montana Quality Foods has since sued the USDA for continuing to harass him while ignoring the fact that the tainted meat came from ConAgra.41


33 The Center for Public Integrity 52.
34 Martha Filipic, “Only Half of Recalled Meat and Poultry Is Recovered, Study Finds,” Ohio State University Research News 26 Apr. 2004.
35 The Center for Public Integrity 58-9.
36 Fox 254.
37 Robbins 138.
38 Fox 245.
39 Schlosser, “Order the Fish” 245.
40 Schlosser, “Order the Fish” 246.
41 John Gregerson, “Testimony Tells USDA’s Side in ‘Retaliation’ Suit,” 18 Oct. 2004.