Nearly 300,000 pounds of questionable ground meat, destined for spaghetti and taco salads in Utah schools, will be destroyed by the state Office of Education and local schools following the largest beef recall in the nation's history.

The recall of 143 million pounds of the meat by Hallmark/Westland Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., was announced Sunday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but Utah school lunch officials were first notified of the problem 18 days earlier, according to Luann Shipley, director of child nutrition programs for the state office. After being contacted by the USDA, says Shipley, her office immediately contacted the state's schools, and the beef was put on "hold."

That meat, seven truckloads each holding 42,000 pounds, is currently sitting in state warehouses and in school cafeteria freezers. Amounts larger than 50 cases will be taken to the landfill to be buried, in a procedure monitored by the State Department of Health. Smaller amounts can be destroyed by the schools, as long as it is witnessed by a "person of authority" and one additional person, according to Marilyn Clayton of the Jordan School District's nutrition services department.

"It has to be put in the garbage in such a way that someone wouldn't see it and take it home," she says.

The USDA commodity program, which sells meat to school lunch programs, keeps careful track of product shipment lots. But Hallmark/Westland also sells to commercial concerns, which might have bought the product and not kept track, she said.

According to the USDA, because the investigation into Hallmark/Westland is ongoing it cannot discuss which restaurants, grocery stores or other businesses may have received shipments of the beef. No state agency regulates the distribution of meat or other foods in Utah.

Most of the meat in question — including beef purchased by school lunch programs — was probably already eaten before any of the sanctions went into place. The recall includes beef produced "on various dates" from Feb. 1, 2006, to Feb. 2, 2008, according to the USDA's recall release.

"We've received the majority of our ground beef from that processor in the past year and a half," says Jordan district's Clayton.

The voluntary recall follows the release of a video by the Humane Society of America showing Hallmark/Westland workers using forklifts and kicking cows to get them to move toward slaughter. According to the USDA, there is only a "remote probability" that the recalled beef would cause adverse health effects if consumed.

On the other hand, the largest risk posed by "downer cows" — cows that cannot walk — is not diseases that would have already surfaced in humans but the lethal BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as "mad cow" disease, which may not show up for a decade or more after contamination.

The chance that the Hallmark/Westland cattle were infected with BSE is slim because of the low incidence of BSE in the U.S., says food safety activist Catherine Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "But downer cattle represent the highest-risk animals for having BSE," she adds.

Although the USDA reiterates that the meat is safe, "it doesn't know what the animals were sick with," DeWaal says.

The fact that the downer animals were discovered by an undercover investigation by the Humane Society rather than the USDA is "really troubling," she adds. "It really raises questions about the overall functioning of our meat inspection programs."

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