The U.S. Department of Agriculture's twin mandates of promoting the nation's agriculture and monitoring it for safety are being questioned in the wake of a beef contamination scare that prompted the nation's largest-ever meat recall.
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee responsible for the USDA's funding, called Tuesday for the USDA to be stripped of its responsibility for food safety.
"Food safety ought to be of a high enough priority in this nation that we have a single agency that deals with it and not an agency that is responsible for promoting a product, selling a product and then as an afterthought dealing with how our food supply is safe," DeLauro said.
She made her remarks during a conference call with reporters about the recall of some 143 million pounds of beef products dating to Feb. 1, 2006, from Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co.
A phone message left for Westland president Steve Mendell was not immediately returned.
USDA officials announced the recall Sunday after the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video showing crippled and sick animals at the slaughterhouse being shoved with forklifts.
Officials estimate that about 55 million pounds of the recalled beef went to USDA nutrition programs, the bulk of it for schools, Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle said.
No illnesses have been linked to the recalled beef, health officials said.
DeLauro planned a pair of hearings for early March to examine why federal inspectors did not note the mistreatment and take steps to ensure that "the school lunch program does not become the industry dumping ground for bad meat."
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said during the conference call that the U.S. Government Accountability Office had started investigating the safety of the National School Lunch Program, which is administered by the USDA.
Pacelle said he hoped the attention to downer cattle, those that cannot stand or walk unassisted, would prompt lawmakers to pass pending legislation in the House and Senate that would keep all downer cows out of the food supply.
Federal regulations discourage slaughterhouses from processing downer cows into meat because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease, but the USDA still permits them to be used with an inspector's approval, he said.
USDA spokesman Keith Williams did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urged the USDA to complete a quick investigation of the apparent mistreatment and offered the support of the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
Schwarzenegger said he supported legislation by state Sen. Dean Florez that would allow California school districts to be reimbursed for beef bought from Westland.
California schools reported ordering 7.4 million pounds beef from the company since July 2007, according to Florez's office.
Deputy District Attorney Glenn Yabuno said prosecutors were also investigating whether Westland's business practices violated any state or local laws. He did not elaborate.
USDA officials were also investigating possible offenses.
Associated Press writer Denise Petski contributed to this report.
© 2008 Associated Press