The U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered the recall of 143-million pounds of frozen beef on Sunday from a California slaughterhouse that is the subject of an animal abuse investigation.
Officials estimate that 37-million pounds of the recalled beef went to school lunch programs, but they believe most of the meat probably has already been eaten and the health threat was likely small.
"We don't know how much product is out there right now. We don't think there is a health hazard, but we do have to take this action," said Dr. Dick Raymond, USDA undersecretary for food safety.
After the investigation of the slaughterhouse was announced early this month, schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties removed beef from their menus until further notice. The schools said they did not think any children had gotten sick.
The beef recall is the largest in the United States, U.S. officials said Sunday, surpassing a 1999 ban of 35-million pounds of ready-to-eat meats. No illnesses have been linked to the newly recalled meat.
The recall affects beef products dating to Feb. 1, 2006, that came from Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. The meat was not available to consumers through retail markets, but was sold wholesale to food companies that used it to make ground beef and other products.
While USDA officials said most of the beef may have been consumed, some larger purchasers may keep meat for as long as a year, and company and government officials will try to trace the meat to notify the purchasers not to use it.
Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said his department has evidence that Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cattle became nonambulatory after passing inspection, violating health regulations.
"Because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection, Food Safety and Inspection Service has determined them to be unfit for human food and the company is conducting a recall," Schafer said.
A phone message left for Westland president Steve Mendell was not immediately returned.
U.S. officials suspended operations at Westland/Hallmark after an undercover video from the Humane Society of the United States surfaced late last month showing crippled and sick animals being shoved with forklifts.
Two former employees were charged Friday. Five felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanors were filed against a former pen manager. Three misdemeanor counts - illegal movement of a nonambulatory animal - were filed against an employee who worked under that manager.
Authorities said the video showed workers kicking, shocking and otherwise abusing "downer" animals that were apparently too sick or injured to walk into the slaughterhouse. Some animals had water forced down their throats, officials said.
Federal regulations call for keeping downed cattle out of the food supply because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease. They typically wallow in feces and their immune systems are often weak.
About 150 school districts around the nation have stopped using ground beef from Hallmark, which is associated with Westland. Two fast-food chains, Jack-In-the-Box and In-N-Out, said they would not use beef from Westland/Hallmark.
Other chains such as McDonald's and Burger King said they do not buy beef from Westland.
Federal lawmakers had called Thursday for the Government Accountability Office to investigate the safety of meat in the National School Lunch Program. Upon learning of the recall, some legislators, including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, criticized the USDA, saying it should conduct more thorough inspections to ensure tainted beef doesn't get to the public.
Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report, which also contains information from the Chicago Tribune.