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School officials put meat on 'administrative hold'

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County school officials are waiting to hear a recommendation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concerning 1,150 cases of ground beef.

The meat came from the Westland/Hallmark Meat company, a California meat processing company. According to a Jan. 30, press release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company is currently under investigation for allegations of "inhumane handling" of what are sometimes known as non-ambulatory, or "downer" cows.

Until the USDA tells the school system what to do with the meat, Clayton County has put its ground beef in deep freeze at the district's maintenance headquarters in Jonesboro, said district spokesman Charles White.

"What we have done is place that meat on administrative hold until we receive further notice," White said. "It was used for tacos, and other, similar products, such as nachos ... We want to stress none of the product has been sent to our schools. No students, or faculty members, have been served any of this meat."

Clayton County was not the only Georgia school system which got meat from the company, though. On Wednesday, the Georgia Department of Education announced 28 school systems across the state got meat from the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company. Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the DOE, said the school systems have been asked to not destroy the meat, yet.

"There is no evidence that any of the meat was contaminated," Tofig said.

On Feb. 5, Dr. Richard Raymond, the USDA's under secretary for food safety, announced his agency had found a "clear violation of Federal regulations and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act."

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that a "downer cow" is a cow which is incapable of walking. These cows are at a higher risk of having E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease.

Since the investigation began, the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company has been suspended indefinitely, by the USDA, from providing meat to Federally organized nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, and the Emergency Food Assistance Program. The USDA will provide more information to the Georgia Department of Education when the federal agency receives its findings on Feb. 19.

On Feb. 3, Steve Mendell, president of Westland/Hallmark Meat Company, posted a notice on his company's web site, announcing the company had voluntarily suspended operations while the USDA conducted its investigation. He refuted claims that downer cows are being used by his company, though.

"I proudly assure our customers that we comply with all USDA requirements, including the requirement that only ambulatory livestock may enter the harvest facility to be processed for human food," Mendell said. "I am confident that we have met this high regulatory standard."

Cynthia Wheeler, a spokesperson for the USDA on the matter, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.