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Today’s lunch special: recalled beef

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BOB MOON: That 143 million pounds of beef being recalled was produced by a California meatpacker over the past couple of years. The trouble came to light when food safety inspectors were tipped off by an undercover video. It showed workers at the Hallmark Meatpacking plant using electric prods and forklifts to get cattle, too weak to stand on their own, into slaughter.

As Marketplace’s John Dimsdale reports from Washington, the entire beef industry is bracing now for a drop in demand.

JOHN DIMSDALE: Officials say they haven’t found any contaminated beef and call the risk of illness “remote,” but the slaughter of cows unable to stand violates food safety rules and Agriculture Department inspectors found evidence Hallmark has been doing that for two years. That’s why the recall is so huge, but officials say most of Hallmark’s beef was consumed long ago.

Thirty seven million pounds of Hallmark’s beef went to the school lunch program, so inspectors are looking for some portion that could still be found in school freezers. A couple of states have pulled meat from their school lunch menus in response.

Janet Riley, with the American Meat Institute, says demand for their product usually drops temporarily after recalls, but not always.

JANET RILEY: We’ve been really astonished by how some of the most high-profile situations actually resulted in increased consumer confidence, because sometimes high-profile issues give us an opportunity to talk about what we do, and that has actually encouraged consumers.

Since no contaminated beef has turned up, the industry is hoping the hit won’t be a big one. Harry Balzer is vice president of the NPD consumer marketing firm that tracks consumer eating trends. Over the past six years, they’ve watched the threats from Mad Cow Disease to E. coli and Salmonella.

HARRY BALZER: But the amazing thing about this is while the concerns will rise, you don’t see much in the change of long-term shifts in consumption, but more important, you don’t see long-term shift in the change in our attitude about the safety of the food supply. It just is the issue of the moment, and this happens to be the one.

Balzer says even in the worst cases of contaminated food, consumers change what they buy for as long as a year, but after that, they’ll be back to buying the same food they always have.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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