The Labor Department reported this week its Consumer Price Index posted a gain of 0.4 percent in January. That matched December's increase and was higher than many analysts had expected.
Core inflation, which excludes the volatile food and energy sectors, rose by 0.3 percent... it's largest jump in seven months. And food prices tallied their largest gain in nearly a year.
While its affect on retail beef prices is less clear, last Sunday's recall of meat from a California processor made an immediate impact on consumer confidence. Concerns over animal welfare prompted the Agriculture Department to shut down the plant and order the recall of a record 143 million pounds of beef, or the equivalent of about two quarter-pounders for every man, woman and child in America.
USDA officials said the recall was initiated because the cattle were not receiving complete and proper inspection. According to USDA, non-ambulatory cattle -- commonly referred to as "downers" -- were not reported to inspectors prior to processing.
Because of the type of recall, Federal rules mandate all of the meat must be destroyed. Further, any expenses associated with tracing, recovering, and destroying the meat will be charged to Hallmark/ Westland.
Downer cattle have -- in the past -- been associated with several maladies including Mad Cow disease. Officials at USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service were quick to point out that it's extremely unlikely any of the animals processed were at risk for Mad Cow.
In a statement, Hallmark/Westland officials said they were shocked and horrified over the inhumane treatment of the cattle. And went on to assure the public that they comply with all USDA regulations, including the requirement that only ambulatory livestock may enter the harvest facility to be processed for human food.
According to company records, 50 million pounds of the recalled meat went to federally-funded school lunch programs. USDA officials believe 20 million pounds have already been eaten, 15 million pounds are awaiting disposal, and the remaining 15 million pounds are being traced. Prior to the recall, Hallmark/Westland supplied 20 percent of the meat used in subsidized school lunch programs.
There was swift and immediate reaction from Capitol Hill. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, called for the USDA to be stripped of its food safety responsibilities. DeLauro also called for hearings in early March to examine the case.