updated 2/29/2008 5:07:52 PM ET 2008-02-29T22:07:52

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has suspended at least two federal meat inspectors following the largest beef recall in the nation's history, a union head said Friday.

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Stan Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, said the USDA confirmed it has placed a veterinarian and a floor inspector from Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. on paid administrative leave.

A USDA spokeswoman did not immediately return an e-mail Friday requesting comment.

Painter said a local union representative told him earlier Friday that a third inspector was also placed on leave, but he could not confirm it with the agency.

"Apparently, they found enough evidence to suspend those people," Painter said. "When I asked them why exactly, they said, 'I don't know.' I don't know if I buy that."

The USDA recalled 143 million pounds of beef from the Chino slaughterhouse on Feb. 17. The recall came after the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video showing plant workers trying to get so-called "downer" cows — sick or crippled animals — to stand by shoving and dragging them with forklifts, zapping them with electric prods and aiming water hoses at their faces and noses.

Workers face criminal charges
Two of the workers in the video face criminal charges and the slaughterhouse, which supplied one-fifth of the meat used in the National School Lunch Program, has closed.

The recall launched a series of congressional hearings and close scrutiny of the USDA's meat and poultry inspection system. The agency has an average national vacancy rate of 10 percent and has said it is short about 500 inspectors.

On Thursday, the agriculture secretary resisted calls from Democratic senators for a complete ban on downer cattle for human consumption. Such cows pose a higher risk of E. coli, salmonella contamination and mad cow disease since they typically wallow in feces and their immune systems are often weak.

Agriculture Secretary Edward T. Schafer instead announced new steps to ensure the safety of the country's meat supply, including more random inspections of slaughterhouses and immediate audits of the 23 plants that supply meat for federal programs, primarily school lunches.

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