Why Recall Two-Year-Old Ground Beef?

Surely we ate it already!

Entrance gate at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing company

Hallmark Meat Packing recalled its entire beef supply from the past two years due to the improper slaughtering of sick cattle, the Department of Agriculture announced last weekend. The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service was quick to assure consumers that most of the recalled meat poses no health hazard and probably has already been consumed. Why would you recall meat that was sold two years ago?

In case someone hasn’t eaten it yet. Recalls of this kind extend as far back as there is evidence of safety violations. In many cases, this can be limited to meat packaged on a specific day or over the course of a given week, but the evidence of noncompliance at Hallmark was a more consistent problem, dating back at least two years. It’s possible there were even earlier violations—which might merit an even more extensive recall—but the government requires meat packers to maintain records of frozen beef shipments for only two years.

How much of that meat is still around? Not much, in all likelihood. The USDA recommends that uncooked frozen meat be served within four to 12 months of packaging,  but there are no rules on how long a package of ground beef can stay on a freezer shelf. Still, it’s unlikely that anyone would be eating two-year-old beef. Ice crystals form on meat that’s been left in the freezer too long, breaking down the cell structure of the muscular tissue and making it soggy. This decrement in quality is so obvious that very few restaurants would bother serving it. Since none of the frozen meat produced by Hallmark was sold directly to grocery stores, consumers don’t have to worry about any contaminated packages tucked away in their home refrigerators. Most of the beef in question was sold directly to the food-service industry and to school lunch programs, which don’t normally keep supplies sitting around for years on end.

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Explainer thanks Jack Curry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Michele Peterson Murray of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and David Ray and Lynn Morrissette of the American Meat Institute.