On Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008 a question and answer session for the media was held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the two-year recall of 143 million pounds of meat from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company. This recall is the largest in history. The following is a transcript of the teleconference.
MODERATOR (Corry Schiermeyer): Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us again. Today we will have, and I'll go through the list of names that we have here in the room that can answer some of your questions –
We're not going to start with any opening remarks or anything. I'll go through the list, and then we'll just go directly to questions.
So we have Dr. Scott Hurd, USDA deputy under secretary for Food Safety; Dr. Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator, Office of Field Operations for USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service; Bruce Knight, USDA under secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs; Bill Sessions, associate deputy administrator for Livestock and Feed Programs, USDA Ag Marketing Service; Dr. John Clifford, USDA chief veterinarian officer; Eric Steiner, associate administrator for Special Nutrition Programs, USDA Food and Nutrition Service; and Ron Vogel, associate deputy administrator for Special Nutrition Programs, USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
And at this time, we will open up to questions from the media. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Elizabeth Williamson, Wall Street Journal.
REPORTER: So if you could, I know you don't have any opening remarks, but what's the status of this recall, and what efforts are you pursuing to round up this 143 million pounds of meat?
DR. PETERSEN: Hi, this is Dr. Petersen. While we are initiating this recall, really consistent with how we would do other recalls, other than the size of it, but we have rather defined procedures. We have a recall direction board, where my folks follow certain prescribed procedures. That directive is available on our home page for those who want to get into any of the details of that. But basically the way it works is, the recalling firm, obviously in this case Hallmark, identifies their initial primary customers, who they sent products to. And that could be either other producing facilities—obviously in this case some of them were facilities that produced for the School Lunch Program. They could be facilities that produced for commercial markets or also in the School Lunch Program. And then those locations typically distribute further down the distribution chain.
And so we start out going to those locations, find out what they made and who else they distribute to. And as part of that initial notification that Hallmark would do, they would tell them, "Here's the products you receive," and tell them what they would do with it, which is in this case obviously control it, and then to destroy the product by either landfill, incineration or inedible rendering.
And we work our way down the distribution chain until we develop basically all points of distribution down to the point of purchase for consumption. And once we have that, then we go randomly to various locations. Again this is a Class II recall, so I would go to a certain prescribed number of locations—that's based again on my directive—and make sure that folks throughout the distribution chain were notified that they had the products, they knew what to do with it, and that they took the appropriate action. And if we get to a location where that didn't occur, then we will cite them for failing to follow the provisions of a recall.
So we've already begun that practice. We really began it over the weekend. I mean certainly on the commercial side the folks in Marketing Regulatory Programs, because of the School Lunch contracts and tracking, have a slightly different nuance on it. So we're starting to track it through the chain.
But sitting here today, I cannot tell you how many locations in aggregate the product has gone to. And obviously we'll go to them and gather the information and really proceed from there. So our focus is on identifying the locations, the locations we go to make sure the products are under control and that they have notified their further customers if any that they received product. And that's standard practice for any recall that we do.
MODERATOR: Before we go to more questions, I'm going to just have Eric Steiner from Food and Nutrition Service kind of update you on their side of things.
MR. ERIC STEINER: Hi, Elizabeth. This is Eric Steiner from the Food and Nutrition Service. Regarding the federal nutrition programs, we do have some updated numbers. I would caution to say that these numbers are still a little fluid, but this is the latest we have at this time.
Of the 143 million pounds involved with the recall, we have about 50.3 million pounds that went to federal nutrition programs. Of that 50.3 million pounds, we have 19.6 million pounds were consumed. We know that 15.2 million pounds are currently on hold. And we know that 15.5 million pounds are actively being traced. And these numbers will be updated as states are able to ascertain the location of the remainder of these products.
REPORTER: Thanks. Will these products be destroyed at all levels of the distribution chain?
DR. PETERSEN: Yes. Because of the nature of the regulatory violation, meaning that the products are unfit, there's no way to make them fit. And so the only option is terminal destruction.
REPORTER: So no matter where this appears, no matter how if it's mixed into I don't know a product or some prepared food or even if it's mixed with meat from other plants or other processors, if that Hallmark/Westland meat is present, that product must be destroyed?
DR. PETERSEN: Correct. I guess theoretically to get to some infinitesimal, immeasurable level even very small fractions – let's make a number up, a half of 1 percent – if a product had half of 1 percent of Hallmark, then that product will have to be removed from commerce and destroyed.
MODERATOR: Thanks, Elizabeth. Jon Rockoff Baltimore Sun.
REPORTER: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I was wondering how many inspectors you have in the plants and whether you think that's enough.
DR. PETERSEN: Well, we cover about 6,200 plants in the federal system. About 5,300 or so of those are slaughter and processing type establishments, and the other 1,000 are types of warehouses and other distribution points. Covering all of those, my in-plant workforce is currently over 7,500 people. And the last year and a half or so we've been really rather aggressively hiring. In fact I probably have 200 more people on-board today than I did last year at this time. And that's more people than I've had on board since really any time since 2002 or so. That's despite the fact that the number of establishments has gone down a little bit due to some consolidation over time.
So we're always looking to hire. My current staffing level, my current vacancy rates are certainly something that we think is manageable. And we do our hiring in concert with our appropriation. In slaughter plant, I typically have a lower vacancy rate; that's because of the demands that's on the slaughter system. But even if I get an assignment that's vacant, I still cover that with relief people and through other mechanisms. So that's kind of the high level I think of where we are in the staffing.
REPORTER: How many vacancies do you have?
DR. PETERSEN: Overall vacancy rate is about 9 percent. It varies by location. For example, New York City would be a difficult place for me to continually find people and keep them. Other parts of the country are easier to find and keep people, but in aggregate 9 percent is about our current vacancy rate, balancing both slaughter and processing vacancies.
REPORTER: So what if there was no vacancy rate? What would your staffing level be?
DR. PETERSEN: If I had 100 percent full employment it would be certainly somewhere north of 8,000.
DR. PETERSEN: Right. Which is an employment level that we've never had.
REPORTER: One last thing. Do you think the way things are set up now that there's enough inspectors assigned to plants to keep track of all the different areas of the plants and make sure that while they are in the slaughter area something untoward isn't happening in the pens, that sort of thing?
DR. PETERSEN: Well, in the slaughter plant, which is obviously of recent interest, inside a slaughter plant whatever carcasses are going down the line we have 100 percent continuous presence. Somebody is in there every minute. Outside in the ante mortem pens, because dealing with live animals, we as folks have some sense of by now, we inspect them. The plant has to tell us, these are the animals we're going to slaughter; we go out and inspect them, and then at some random basis we go out and make sure that they are being handled humanely.
So in the ante mortem pen, I don't have somebody obviously standing next to every employee every minute of every time of the day of operation. So that's kind of the state of the art we are today. As far as coverage, of course the nature of the food production system today is quite a bit different than it was 100 years ago. And so we want to make sure we focused our inspection based on 21st century hazards and not necessarily based on how we did things 100 years ago.
MR. SCOTT HURD: Jon, this is Scott Hurd. Just to clarify, in the slaughter plant as Dr. Petersen was saying, when they turn on the switch there is no vacancy; it's fully staffed. Is that correct, Ken? Everybody is there on-line when a slaughter plant turns on running. So the vacancy rate that he's talking about is nationwide for all the workforce. But everybody's there, and everybody's ready to go when the plant starts operation, or it can't run.
MODERATOR: Thanks. If we can go on to the next person, please?
OPERATOR: Andrew Martin, New York Times.
REPORTER: I just had a quick question, and that is, do you plan to release the places where this meat went? And if not, why not?
DR. PETERSEN: Okay, it's Dr. Petersen. As some of the folks know, I think you've tracked some of the things we do in FSIS, beginning a couple years ago, it really started with a petition but also through some other external interests in initiated rulemaking to provide for that, meaning notification to the public of locations of distribution as we talked about the beginning, throughout the distribution chain. Store by store.
Currently, and that was really the basis for the rulemaking, that information was considered proprietary information. That is, the customers of the businesses was considered proprietary. That's the regulation that's on our books today.
And so we've done a proposed rule, we've gotten comments on the proposed rule, and we're ready to issue a final rule. I can't give you a date on that. It's intended to be sometime this year. Our intent is to final that rule. So it kind of depends on in this particular recall when that rule goes final. And that's not something I personally would have any influence over.
But technically today I would not post them. If the rule was issued next week, then theoretically we could post them. That's the rules we're living with today.
REPORTER: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Ben Goad, Press Enterprise.
REPORTER: Hi. Is there any plan to test the meat that's being recalled right now?
DR. PETERSEN: This is Dr. Petersen. No. Really as a matter of course no mater what recall I do, even if it's Class I recall for a real food safety hazard, once we initiate the recall we've really made our decision. And meaning that we at some level the product has to be either removed from product, removed from commerce which is the case here, or in say an e-coli situation you could potentially cook it to deliver the value.
So any additional testing isn't going to really tell me anything. In this particular case it's an unfit situation, meaning these animals didn't receive the follow-up ante mortem inspection after they had already been inspected that should have happened. So there's no way to test or correct that error, so given the remote risk, given that I've already made my decision to recall, and given that frankly there's no test that's going to tell me anything and even if there was it wouldn't change the actions we're taking—
If we're destroying all of these products, I don't need a test to inform me that I'm going to do anything different. So that's how we're going to proceed.
REPORTER: What about the people that have already consumed the meat?
DR. PETERSEN: Well, I'd have to, you know, maybe go back over the facts here. And the facts are, you know, we had some animals that were presented on ante mortem, they were found healthy. And on a rare occasion through our investigation we learned that an animal would occasionally go down and the plant was expected to notify us so that we could, my veterinarian could reexamine that animal. But that's all predicated on a whole, you know, broad strategy of both food safety controls but, more importantly in this case, BSE controls in the United States going back to surveillance that began in the 1990s, the FDA feed ban that began in '97, aggressive surveillance by the department that began in 2004 in which we did upwards of 800,000 tests of animals, cattle, focused those tests on high risk end of the spectrum. Only 2 of those roughly 800,000 animals were positive. Both of those were born before the feed ban.
Then we get to a slaughter plant. We have a downer ban, which the Harvard Risk Assessment tells us controls roughly 3 percent of the risk. And most importantly at the slaughter plant we have removal of specified risk material, which the Harvard Risk Assessment tells us is slanted toward mitigating upwards of 99 percent of any possible risk.
So given all of that, what we tell the public and what we have been saying is, this is a Class II recall. The reason we call it a very, very remote probability of any adverse illness is because of everything I just said.
REPORTER: Finally, we understand that there's folks from the USDA and the FDA out at the plant today. Do you know what's going on there, if that's the case?
DR. PETERSEN: Well, as we've been saying, I haven't been tracking the comings and goings of investigators. But the investigation still going on as folks have been tuning in obviously are well aware. So I wouldn't be surprised that we're doing additional investigation as we would with any investigation, not just in the government, any investigation by any law enforcement personnel. They get information, they circle back, they talk to other people, cross-check facts, so if they are there today or yesterday none of that would surprise me.
MODERATOR: Next question please.
OPERATOR: Dana Walker, ABC News.
REPORTER: Thank you. I'm wondering if anyone has gotten sick from the meat or if there's anymore concern or any further recalls.
DR. PETERSEN: This is Dr. Petersen. Actually there has been no reported illness, and this is certainly a recall that goes back two years. Given the nature of what I'd said in response to the previous reporter and the decisions we made on this particular recall, we really don't envision there to be any illnesses. But the facts are, there have not been any that have been reported.
REPORTER: So there won't be any further recalls?
DR. PETERSEN: Well, I hate to, I've learned I never say never. We took a rather aggressive approach with this recall based on the facts we learned in the investigation; 143 million pounds is aggressive. It goes back over two years. And so I think in the absence of some rather sweeping new facts, I don't see the need for any additional recall because we've recalled everything basically on the beef side of this produced over the last two years.
REPORTER: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Sally Schuff, Feedstuffs.
REPORTER: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'm sorry if I'm repeating something that was asked earlier. I came on the call a little bit late. I was wondering, how many cows or animals do you have evidence of that went into the plant without being properly reinspected when they went down? Dr. Raymond said on the last call that you had evidence of the practice going on for two years. Can you say how many cows it was?
DR. PETERSEN: I know the information but it's part of the investigation. I'm unable to share it with you. The way we've explained it, which is the best way we're able to explain it and preserve the investigation is, we know that it was a very rare occurrence. But obviously, given that we went back two years, we obviously have some reason to believe that it occurred at some frequency going back two years. So I'm going to have to leave it there on that particular question.
REPORTER: Okay. I have a follow-up on that. The question was asked on a call, not a USDA call but it was asked, what are the reimbursement issues on the USDA food programs? Was it 50 million pounds you said that went to USDA food programs? Who pays?
MR. BILL SESSIONS: This is Bill Sessions with the Agricultural Marketing Service. USDA will pursue every avenue available to us to reimburse the states for the cost of replacing the products that have to be destroyed as well as the transportation of the product to the disposal sites, disposal fees, and that sort of thing. So essentially, and we'll do that, the primary way will be through, we will take a warranty action against Westland to try to recover some of these costs. But essentially it's USDA's responsibility to pursue this through these actions to reimburse the states for these designated costs.
REPORTER: Thank you so much.
OPERATOR: Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times.
REPORTER: Hi. I'm wondering if Hallmark/Westland has submitted a corrective action plan yet? And my understanding is that the initial suspension of inspection was because of mean handling practices. Are there going to be any additional measures now that you've determined that there were other failures at the plant?
DR. PETERSEN: This is Dr. Petersen. No, they've not submitted any corrective action. I think as we've indicated before, that's strictly up to them, the timing of it. My guess is they would want to tell me what they have done rather than what they intend to do. So that's just a guess. We did, you're correct, the initial suspension on I guess it was February 4 was targeted to regulatory violations associated with the humane handling situation. When we identified over the weekend that the regulatory violations were not giving us a chance to reexamine animals that had already been inspected, I did amend the suspension to put that additional concern in front of them. That's part of any normal due process. I put them on notice of what we're concerned about so that they can appropriately respond to it.
So we amended the suspension, but it's just another thing they would need to respond to in their response whenever they get around to it.
REPORTER: And once they submit that response and if that's approved by the USDA, are they allowed to open immediately? Is that how it works?
DR. PETERSEN: Yeah. I mean, a little term of art. I don't really approve them; I just need to be quite confident that what they're proposing identifies what happened, give some rationale for why they believe it happened, and then most importantly identify significant, and in this case multilayered, corrective actions that give us some level of confidence that it's not going to occur in the future. And then we verify their corrective actions over a multi-month period of time.
So that could, that turnaround could be, depends on the quality of what they submit. Just telling you how it usually works, it's rare I get a submittal and say thank you, it looks wonderful." There's always some back and forth, clarification or additional expectations by the agency. But the short answer is, consistent with due process if they give us a sufficient response we would allow them to operate. And then we've also made it clear I think in other calls, the administrative action on the suspension is totally separate from anything that the Office of Inspector General is doing on their investigation.
REPORTER: Can I just ask one follow-up? Can you describe the details of the warranty action against Westland?
MR. BILL SESSIONS: This is Bill Sessions with the Agricultural Marketing Service. Our contractual provisions are very specific, and states that if there is a food safety recall of any of the products that are provided by a contractor then the contractor is responsible for paying for all the costs associated with that recall and the destruction of the product. So we will be, in the days to come we've already notified Westland that we intend to initiate a warranty action. And we will be going through the legal process to do that over the coming days and months.
REPORTER: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Patrick Temple West, the Medill News Service.
REPORTER: Good afternoon. Is there anything more known about the inspector at the Westland plant or how these infractions slipped past?
DR. PETERSEN: Well, of course there is some more known, but that's still wrapped up in the middle of the investigation, and as we've suggested the investigation, as with any investigation, some back and forth. You go here, you go there, you get some information, and maybe go back and talk to people. So that's wrapped up still in I think a variety of interviews with a whole variety of parties. And so it's premature for me to reach any conclusion on where they are with that.
REPORTER: Okay, thank you.
OPERATOR: Stewart Doan, AgriPulse.
REPORTER: Yes. Thank you for taking my call. A question for Dr. Petersen. I need a clarification on a quote that was attributed to you earlier this week, USA Today that USDA said Monday it would step up oversight at 900 slaughter facilities, and you're quoted as saying, "The extra checks will give us a better handle on that." Did you make that statement, number one? Number two, can you clarify what you meant by "extra checks?" How much more oversight are you envisioning here?
DR. PETERSEN: Well, what we discussed in that particular interview was related to the ante mortem inspection and obviously humane handling. We've had some past practices, we have a lot of data that shows that I believe the activities that we're doing have been sufficient, and we know that we have suspended plants in the last year or so for egregious inhumane handling errors. So my inspectors are identifying egregious errors. We know that we identify what we call "nonegregious humane handling violations," such as not having water in the pens and that kind of thing. We have cited the plants upwards of 600 or 700 times last year for those kind of less-egregious violations, which is a relatively small number given the scope of everything we looked at.
But all that aside, and just given everything we know with this particular situation, given some of the facts we're finding in the investigation, considering options on how I want to perhaps reaffirm what our data is already telling us, and we're pulling together some options on that. It's still something we're considering, and that was the nature of the conversation. And I think in the coming days we'll be most likely giving you all some clarity on how we might proceed with that.
REPORTER: So this was not a, it's not being implemented yet, and second part of that question: How did you come up with 900?
DR. PETERSEN: Oh, I'm sorry. Okay. Yeah, it hasn't been implemented yet with any national strategy. I want to make sure we've looked at all the options and then selected the right strategy before we ask folks to go about and do the work.
Nine hundred is, in the federal system, the universe of livestock slaughter plants, all livestock, and roughly 600 of those plus or minus would be plants that slaughter cattle. And so 900 is all livestock, meaning plants that are subjected to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
REPORTER: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press.
REPORTER: My question is, first of all, what percentage, do you know what percentage of school meat was provided by the Hallmark plant in the overall program?
MR. BILL SESSIONS: This is Bill Sessions with Agricultural Marketing Service. Over the past few years you could say that roughly 20 percent of the ground beef that was purchased by AMS and it was provided to federal food and nutrition programs was provided by Westland Meat Company.
REPORTER: Okay. Thank you. And a follow-up question, can you just describe quickly how plants are selected for the school meat program, how that process works, and how many of them there are that provide meat to the School Meat Program nationwide?
MR. BILL SESSIONS: Sure. We have an eligibility process for suppliers that they must go through to be eligible to supply. And this is in course with the federal acquisition regulations. First they have to demonstrate financial solvency and their ability to be financially independent. They have to have the technology and the means as far as the equipment and the personnel to perform the task. They then have to submit what we call a technical proposal, and that outlines all of how they, all the specific processes they will go through to meet the requirements that are contained in our specification and contracts. And then once they submit that technical proposal, it is subject to a desk audit by our scientific staff back here in Washington. Then if it passes that, then they are subjected to an in-plant audit, and that means that they have to be doing what they say they're doing and what they are doing meets the requirements contained in our specification and contractual requirements.
After that, they then become what was known as an "eligible supplier," and they then have to compete on a low-bid basis for the right to supply product. Once they are awarded a contract, we have an in-plant grader that is there monitoring the actual preparation and grinding process, and they oversee all aspects of that. In addition to that, we have monthly audits that they come in and look at all aspects of what was going on there. And additionally – I should say the plant would be operating under a federal grant of inspection; that's the foundation that we build on. We are really no different than any other large commercial purchaser of ground beef items. We rely on our colleagues at FSIS to provide that foundation of safety; then we build on that with other specific requirements that meet the end needs of our users.
REPORTER: Thank you. And the second part; of that question was, do you know how many plants there are that do provide meat that have gone through all those steps and currently provide meat for the federal school lunches?
MR. BILL SESSIONS: Currently we have 10 suppliers that are eligible. These are grinders that actually produce, manufacture the end items that we purchase. And those 10 grinders are supplied by 23 approved suppliers of boneless beef. These are the harvest facilities that actually slaughter the cattle and prepare the boneless beef and then provide those to our 10 eligible grinders.
REPORTER: Well, Hallmark would have been one of the 23 suppliers, not one of the grinders, right?
MR. SESSIONS: Hallmark and Westland was – they are two operations side by side, and Hallmark was the slaughter operation; Westland was the grinding operation. And we, for our purposes of contracts we considered those one operation.
REPORTER: And you said over the past few years about roughly 20 percent of the ground beef in the School Lunch Program had come from Hallmark Westland?
MR. SESSIONS: That's on average. I can, you know if you need specifics we have all that out there on our website. But roughly a good rule of thumb is about 20 percent.
REPORTER: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Sara Rosenfeld, NBC News.
REPORTER: Hi. Thank you for taking my question. I was wondering if you could go into the inspection process in general a little more in depth. And since the Humane Society had gotten this video under cover, what other means do you have besides direct surveillance to ensure the integrity of the process?
DR. PETERSEN: Okay, this is Dr. Petersen. The inspection process at ante mortem is, you know, animals arrive on trucks, and then they're unloaded. They can be unloaded any time of day or night. And they are held in pens, and then when the plant is ready to have them slaughtered, they notify FSIS that we have animals, you know, to be inspected. And depending on the facility that can be from a few to just hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands. And we go out and look at those animals, talking about livestock now, at rest and in motion.
And then any animals that say are in this case nonambulatory we would condemn them. And no matter what the – well, that's what we would do certainly for cattle.
Then other animals can have other, you know, maladies, various infections, eye infections, mastitis, that kind of thing. Some of those animals may be eligible for slaughter but we want to track them more closely, so we separate them and designate them what we call a "U.S. Suspect." Those are basically animals that have some kind of disease malady but the veterinarian doesn't think it's sufficient to condemn them on ante mortem.
The bulk of the population, normal animals once we pass ante mortem inspection, then they go to slaughter, and then they are humanely stunned when they enter the facility.
The U.S. Suspects as I said are slaughtered separately, and the veterinarian examines them separately. And then the veterinarian correlates their ante mortem findings with any findings they have on that specific animal on post mortem, and then make the decision on whether that animal can proceed to slaughter.
So that's it, at least on the ante mortem side.
Now post mortem, livestock going to the plant, they're humanely stunned, rendered insensible. And then they're shackled and raised and they are exanguinated, bled out, and then we begin the dressing process which depending on the species you know say in cattle involves sanitary removal of the hide. Many facilities have a variety of interventions to minimize (unclear) from microbial contamination such as things such as applying steam at various points or some acid rinses to reduce bacteria. And then somewhere in the slaughter process they present the animal for post mortem inspection by federal inspectors. And federal inspectors look at each carcass and each part, and then they make a decision on whether the part, for example the liver, is acceptable for food. And if not, they condemn it.
Then they inspect obviously the balance of the carcass to make sure it's fit for food. And then we apply the market inspection if they are acceptable, the plant then typically at the end of a cattle slaughter line will apply a terminal intervention such as hot water or steam to reduce any chance of pathogen contamination. Many of these plants do extensive microbial testing. Certainly FSIS does a variety of microbial testing. So that may be a little more than you want, but that's kind of how we do it.
And then I think you had another question in there that I may not have gotten to?
REPORTER: Yes. Beyond inspectors actually inspecting the meat or surveilling the process, do you have other means of knowing?
DR. PETERSEN: There has been of course there's been some recent discussion on it also but over the last few years there's certainly been this discussion of this, say, shall we have video surveillance in livestock pens? That came up initially a couple years ago, and what the agency did at the time was we wanted to initiate some routine surveillance. And the routine surveillance we were doing was this humane handling random checks that we've been talking about in the last few calls.
And so that's what we put in place then. And so obviously it's part of this investigation. We're going to take a closer look at are we getting everything out of that that we envisioned?
And if not, are there different techniques we should be doing for that kind of random audits? For example, coming into pens at different areas am I doing that? Am I truly doing it randomly throughout the day?
So we've been doing that. We're going to assess it. And then there are certainly some of these old ideas will invariably come back up such as: should I have video cameras, should I maintain video tapes, and is that something the government should set up and fund? Is that something that we should require industry to set up and manage? Those are all open questions.
And I think we'd get a little farther into the investigation when we get closer to the conclusion point before we'd make a recommendation on whether that's something that we think is appropriate.
And then you'd obviously look at the type of facility. Should you do the same thing in all facilities? Do they have the same risks in a plant that slaughters young animals such as market house? Or do I focus that kind of activity of plants that slaughter cull animals such as diary cattle? So there's a lot of different ways to think about it.
But at the end of all this, or even in the middle of all this, we want to assess what we've been doing throughout the board. We want to assess what industry is doing, and then we want to learn anything that needs to be learned from the investigation, obviously get new ideas from the general public and put the best program in place.
REPORTER: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Miriam Falco, CNN Medical News.
REPORTER: Hi. Thanks for taking the questions. I've got a couple questions. First of all, Mr. Steiner, could you go over those numbers again for the 50.3 million pounds that went into the federal nutrition program?
MR. ERIC STEINER: Yes. This is Eric Steiner with the Food and Nutrition Service. Of the 143 million pounds involved with this recall, 50.3 million pounds were distributed through the federal nutrition programs. Of that 50.3, 19.6 million pounds have been consumed, 15.2 million pounds are on hold, and 15.5 million pounds are being actively traced. And again, these numbers are still a bit fluid, and we'll update the numbers as states are able to ascertain the location of the remainder of these products.
REPORTER: Thank you. And for Dr. Petersen, you say you consider these rare occurrences at this particular plant, but if you look at the video tape there are at least three or four or more different cows. So what do you consider rare occurrences at this particular plant? And then you also answered earlier that there was no indication of illness. I'm not sure how you're answering that question. Are you talking about e-coli or salmonella, because obviously if there were any chance that any of these cows might have had BSE, we wouldn't know if anyone got sick for 10 or 15 years. Correct?
DR. PETERSEN: Okay. A couple questions in there. The rare situation refers to the fact that we inspected them first and then between inspection and where they enter the actual slaughter facility they went down. So there were, can't further clarify this today, but as a result of the investigation we know there were rare situations where animals we first inspected when down. So that's the rare piece.
And we say they are healthy because we looked at them first on ante mortem. And so for animals to appear healthy, obviously these are mature animals, and we looked at them at rest and in motion. It would be rather inconsistent with a lot of disease conditions for them to go down, you know, right off the bat.
Then the key – I mean there are several keys. But even on the rare ones that went down, we mentioned earlier about removal of specified risk materials inside the facility. That is the single key mitigation strategy. And we know from our inspection records and from plant records that that was being effectively implemented every single day.
And that's removal of things like the brain and spinal cord and that kind of thing.
The animals you saw in the video are not animals that would have passed ante mortem inspection. Those animals are down. And some of the animals that you saw down were so severely distressed that they're just not going to get up. And so we've got to be careful you know what facts we're kind of looking at.
Yes, there was egregious, completely unacceptable movement of those animals. But animals in that condition, you know based on a lot of experience here, don't just kind of get up and start moving around. And if they do, they are certainly not going to be the kind of animal that's going to be readily passed by inspection personnel.
REPORTER: But then how did your inspectors – if I understand it properly, you're saying once they got into the facility where your people are 100 percent of the time while slaughter is going on, even if they're not outside where they're being pushed into this facility, it would have come up? What I don't understand is, how you're parsing this out. You're saying that those never would have passed inspection anyway. But we see video of them going into the facility. So at what point does your inspection pick up on this?
DR. PETERSEN: Well, I guess I would, I'd have to maybe have a disagreement here. I don't see evidence of those animals going into the facility. I see evidence of certainly inhumane handling. But those animals I don't see being forcibly forklifted up into the establishment, much less killed and brought into the establishment. So that's video. So I just don't see that.
We do have evidence obviously that some apparently healthy animals then went down, but apparently healthy animals are not what you observed in the video, and those animals are not the kind of thing that would have again passed ante mortem inspection.
REPORTER: What about your comments about, Nobody got sick?
DR. PETERSEN: Well, we go back to the rather I think exhaustive discourse we had earlier on, you've got to look at the facts of BSE in this country, and the facts here are wildly different than they were certainly in the European Union. And the facts on surveillance activity that we found, the extremely low prevalence in the U.S., it's not zero but it is extremely low, mitigations that were put in place over a decade ago for feed ban to mitigate exposure, and then activities at the slaughter plants, downer plant, banning, and the key is the SRM removal.
Then certainly any stressed animal can exhibit – shed pathogens at a more readily rate. But the plant processes as we mentioned earlier are designed to address logarithmic reductions in pathogens. And in this facility we did extensive testing, we the Department, and much of that testing was done by Agriculture Marketing Service, and we know in the last year upwards of 500 samples of finished product was collected, and they were all negative for e-coli 0157H7.
So you know, I don't want to suggest that any of this is okay, certainly not the handling and letting animals go into the plant without calling us back out to inspection. But there are other multi-hurdle strategies in place, and the reason that it's important to have a multi-hurdle strategy is so that you don't hang your hat on any single control point.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Janet Wilson, LA Times.
REPORTER: Hi. Kind of going way back to near the beginning, I'm trying to understand fully the production and distribution chain. How many sources, facilities or cows or whatever can a single lot of ground beef come from? I mean was the processing side of this business just getting meat from the slaughtering side, or is it coming from all different kinds of places? And is there adequate trace-back? I mean, you were talking about how you can have even an infinitesimal amount or half a percent. I mean how is it possible to adequately trace back where all of the meat came from?
And kind of a related last question, I don't believe you guys currently have mandatory animal ID, and I'm wondering why that is.
DR. PETERSEN: Okay. This is Dr. Petersen will start. In this particular facility the vast preponderance and to my information it's well over 98 percent of the products they distribute were slaughtered at that facility. They didn't happen to bring in other products from other facilities. But federal establishments are required by law, Federal Meat Inspection Act but also by regulation, to maintain certain records. And so this plant would have records of everybody they distributed to going back the last year or two.
So I know right off the bat who those folks are.
Then I go to, say, Plant B, and they are required to keep records, both of receipt of product and then if they mix this product with product from another facility their production records need to show me that. And we've done enough recalls – the record, the tracing forward of products because of the required recordkeeping has never been an issue for us. Establishments know, and it's really required business practices, that these are the records you have to keep. And it's customer records and that kind of thing.
So we know who they are, so we have to go location by location to find out: what did you receive, when did you receive it? Did you make it into one product or 10 products? And we would still know that information and we'd track it down the chain to find their further customers.
And then I think we have Dr. Clifford with us who can touch on the animal ID piece.
DR. CLIFFORD: Hi. This is Dr. Clifford with APHIS Veterinary Services. Let me just mention animal ID. First and foremost, animal ID within APHIS Veterinary Service is for animal health purposes. Having said that, a lot of people do not recognize the fact that there's multiple ID systems out there. In fact a lot of our disease eradication and control programs have mandatory ID requirements for those specific programs.
Now with regards to the National Animal Identification System, that's a system that's been in cooperation with the industry and the states that we've been developing and implementing. It is a voluntary program with regards to producer participation. We felt it was better to address this program from a voluntary nature in getting the cooperation of the industry sector within that.
Also though as that program has been developed and implemented, we've been incorporating those standards into a single system over time. And that's not a short term. So that as we move toward one system we will eventually go away from other ID systems that were specific to a disease in a specific species program.
So that's our goal.
REPORTER: That's helpful. I'm a little bit confused just in terms of then for this particular type of product, ground beef and for the School Lunch Program let's say, is it possible to trace back to which farms and which cows it would have come from at this point through those specific programs that has a whole myriad regulation?
MR. BILL SESSIONS: This is Bill Sessions with the Ag Marketing Service. We do have in addition to the trace-back and trace-forward requirements of Food Safety Inspection Service we have even more stringent requirements relative to trace-back and trace-forward right down to the chub of meat. If it goes forward into commerce, we can pick up any of our food nutrition programs we can pick up a chub of the meat and be able to almost instantaneously know what plant it came from, on what day it was produced, what hour, and so forth. And then within that we can tie it back to a number of carcasses. But we cannot trace it back to the farm.
REPORTER: Do you think you should be able to? Would that be an additional safeguard you'd recommend for instance for a school lunch program that uses a lot of ground beef as I understand it?
MR. BILL SESSIONS: Well, our specification and contractual requirements are continuously under review and we look at the best science and best industry practices, and again if that's something that we need to do as an agency we will certainly consider that.
REPORTER: Okay. But do you think you need to do it as an agency is my question.
MR. BILL SESSIONS: At this point we don't think that necessarily needs to be done. We have a lot of requirements in place such as all of our beef is of domestic origin. That means they have to come from cattle that are originate that are U.S. produced. We pull all the, we make sure that the spinal cords and other excluded materials are removed. We require that the vendor have pathogen intervention steps in their slaughter process such as steam pasteurization. We require the routine testing of carcasses for e-coli 0157H7 to verify that the interventions that the harvest facility are using are effective. We require that the quality control cram be documented with a technical proposal and that this is constantly reviewed. We again, the boneless beef is traceable to a number of carcasses there back to the source, to the harvest facility.
REPORTER: When you say a number of carcasses, how many could it be from?
MODERATOR: Janet, we're going to need to move on. I'm so sorry, but we have a few more that we need to get to, and we're running out of time. But if you want to just follow up with us, feel free to give us a call.
REPORTER: Okay. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: All right. Thanks.
OPERATOR: Eric Weiner, TBS.
REPORTER: Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted to know how this recall, how you think it's going to affect trading partners such as Japan. I know you seem to be sticking that the recall is going to fix the problem, but things like this I know from past experiences at least, that really makes trading partners nervous. Do you expect any negative backlash from this? Thanks.
DR. PETERSEN: Okay, it's Dr. Petersen. Actually this particular firm was not, as I understand it, a big exporter. So we engage with our trading partners obviously in an ongoing basis. It's bilateral, multilevel activities. They depend on the execution of our system. I don't think we're suggesting that this recall kind of takes care of everything, just we think a recall is obviously a failure. There is a problem. But it's really in the food safety arena it's all about ongoing effectiveness of processes. That's what we demonstrate through our laboratory sampling. It's certainly OIE related activities. And understandably our trading partners are quite interested in what's going on. But they also recognize kind of what's happening in the broader arena of food safety in the U.S. and the fact that we have generally effective constructive trade with them I think indicates that they think we have a reliable system.
UND. SEC. BRUCE KNIGHT: This is Under Secretary Knight. If I could supplement what Ken had stated, this particular plant was not in the export market. As we look back over the last two years there were only two countries to which it had sent any export products. One was the Ivory Coast and the other one was another African nation. The kinds of products that go to the major markets like that you're talking about in Japan are traditionally coming from young, fat animals from which you derive steaks, roasts, premium cuts such as what we send to Japan. And this was one, this plant was dedicated primarily towards lean animals that would be just primarily for hamburger use.
DR. PETERSEN: So in this recall again, kind of underpinning all of this, is that it is really not a health-related issue, it is a Class II recall, a very, very remote probability. That's quite different than I think other things that our trading partners would be more concerned with. So we're not even on that same level with this recall.
OPERATOR: Clarissa Kell-Holland, Land Line Magazine.
REPORTER: Hello. Does USDA have a plan in place right now to pick up the product that is currently on hold in the school cafeterias around the country? And has any of the recalled product been destroyed yet?
RON VOGEL: This is Ron Vogel from Food Nutrition Service. The answer to that is yes, we do have a plan to recover and destroy this product in accordance with FSIS requirements. None of that product has been destroyed yet, but we will require documentation from state agencies and schools that the product has been in fact destroyed in accordance with FSIS requirements.
REPORTER: Have any disposal sites been set up yet for the recalled meat?
RON VOGEL: Those sites will be determined in conjunction with state and local health officials. That's a process that will be handled –
REPORTER: Okay, thanks.
MODERATOR: We have time for one more question. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Bob Crower (sp), Capital Press.
REPORTER: Yes, thank you. I'm just wondering if you had any – it's kind of a two-part question – whether you've had any discussions with the Humane Society about their investigation and anything that they found either on this video or any other things that they might have that might help you in your investigation.
And then secondly, maybe what your message might be to groups like that to come forward more expeditiously with their allegations?
DR. PETERSEN: This is Dr. Petersen. As far as discussions we have or haven't had with any parties, that would be part of the investigation. I wouldn't be able to comment on that. I think our view on how this information came to light was certainly initially put forward by Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer in his initial release that we were rather disappointed that apparently this information was known at least to them for some period of months, upwards of three to four months. And the agency was provided this information really concurrent with when everybody else was provided this information.
For me, that, it's up to them to of course decide how they want to proceed with their investigations. But for me, that's quite different than information, sharing I get from other related groups. One in particular does a lot of undercover kind of work, typically they will share that information with me or other agency in advance. We don't have the slightest qualms with anybody going public with anything. But sometimes if some of this information is shared at least somewhat in advance the agency initiates its investigation at a time when nobody really knows what it is we're investigating. And sometimes that can give you a little different quality of investigation than it does when everybody else has the information.
So but that's how it rolled out, and once we had the information as the Secretary charged us we aggressively began doing the investigation. And so we're going to move forward now that we have the information.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And thank you everyone that joined us today. If we did not get to your questions or if you have follow-up questions, please let us know here at USDA Communications. And also please continue to look at our website, WWW.USDA.GOV/ACTIONS is where we continue to update.
But again, if you have any questions, please let us know. Thank you.