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More animal abuses could hurt demand for U.S. beef

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Consumer demand for U.S. ground beef could fall if circumstances that lead to the recall of a record 143 million lbs of meat in February happen again, a top U.S. Agriculture Department official said on Monday.

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“The industry is right now fighting an image problem with the American consumer,” Richard Raymond, the agriculture undersecretary who oversees USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said during the Reuters Food Summit.

“We have to make certain what happens with Hallmark never happens again. Another hit like that and I’m afraid you see consumption of ground beef going into a tailspin,” he said.

A videotape released on January 30 by The Humane Society of the United States showed Hallmark/Westland workers using abusive techniques, including ramming animals with forklift blades and using a hose to simulate the feeling of drowning, to force sick and injured cattle into the slaughterhouse so they could be processed into food.

The California plant later recalled 143 million pounds of meat, mostly beef, dating back to February 2006. It was the largest recall in U.S. history.

While Raymond sees the industry as a whole taking humane handling very seriously, he said inhumanely treated cattle are usually not healthy and should be kept out of the food supply.

“We want to find out why it happened and how it happened and we want to make sure it never happens again, ever, because it does nothing to establish confidence in our food supply domestically or on the international market,” said Raymond.

The meat was recalled because the plant butchered downer cattle in violation of federal rules. Beef from downer cattle -- defined as an animal too ill or injured to walk -- is usually not allowed in the food supply. The rule was adopted as a safeguard against “mad cow” and other diseases.

U.S. beef consumption totaled 28.1 billion pounds in 2007, up from 28 billion in 2006, according to the USDA.

In the Hallmark case, the cattle could not stand at the time of slaughter, although they passed inspection earlier. Packers are required to alert USDA veterinarians in those cases so they can decide if the animal can be slaughtered for food.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said recently that before his agency would consider making any major changes it must find out more about why the incident took place.

For now, USDA said it will give inspectors more time to verify humane handling practices are followed as well as increase frequency of unannounced audits at the slaughter facilities that provide beef for federal food programs.

The meat industry was hit hard in 2007. A series of large recalls, attributed mostly to E. coli O157:H7, prompted USDA to expand testing and recall infected meat more rapidly to combat the pathogen. The department said 21 recalls related to E. coli in meat occurred, compared with just eight in 2006.

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Reporting by Christopher Doering, editing by Leslie Gevirtz