A massive beef recall has swept the nation, affecting nearly 9 million pounds of meat sold at more than 6,300 retailers in 35 states. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a Class I recall – the most serious kind – which means the affected beef presents a "health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death." The problem stems from a northern California slaughterhouse, Rancho Feeding Corporation, which processed "diseased and unsound animals" without proper USDA inspection. As a result, all beef processed at Rancho in 2013 must be destroyed. Here's what you need to know about this fiasco. 

1. The recall impacts everything from beef hearts to Hot Pockets.
If there's beef in a food, it’s a potential problem. This recall includes whole carcasses sold to butcher shops and supermarkets as well as specialty products like oxtail, veal cutlets, beef checks, and Rocky Mountain Oysters. Even packaged foods containing beef, such as Walmart’s Great Value brand frozen hamburger patties and Philly Steak & Cheese Hot Pockets, have been recalled in many states. Retailers have already pulled affected products from their shelves, but much of this meat was already sold. If you have a stockpile of steak-flavored Hot Pockets in your freezer, it’s probably best to pitch them.

2. The problem probably came from dairy cows with eye cancer.
The USDA is staying mum about the particulars of the recall, saying only that the issue is under investigation. But inside sources suggest that Rancho processed dairy cows with eye cancer, prompting the recall. Retired dairy cows, which are older and oftentimes sicker than young beef cattle, are sometimes slaughtered and made into low-grade meat. However, cancerous cows should have been flagged by both Rancho and a USDA inspector. They were not. Even though experts say it’s unlikely that this meat was mingled with better-quality beef at the slaughterhouse, sick cows being processed at the same facility as healthy cows wrecks the whole lot. 

3. The USDA may be to blame.
Since the USDA won’t talk, nobody knows for certain who’s to blame for this mess. Some reports claim that Rancho deliberately, secretly slaughtered sick dairy cows to skirt USDA inspection. But other ranchers and beef industry stakeholders stand by Rancho’s integrity, saying this must have been a mistake – and the direct result of insufficient USDA oversight. In a New York Times op-ed, Nicolette Himan, co-owner of BN Ranch, one of the most respected humane and sustainable operations in the nation, says the problem is there aren’t enough slaughterhouses or USDA personnel to handle all of the beef that must be processed and inspected. With resources stretched so thin, even responsible ranchers – and slaughterhouses – risk falling victim to a screw-up like this.

4. Small-scale, responsible ranchers will be hit hardest.
This recall is most devastating to small, independent ranchers and to operations that raise animals humanely and do everything right to ensure quality meat. When a situation like this arises, every rancher who works with that slaughterhouse, whether he owns three cows or 300, must get rid of every last scrap of affected meat. For a giant factory operation, losing several thousand pounds of beef is a bummer, but it likely won’t devastate the company. For a small- or medium-size ranch, however, that much loss is enough to put it out of business.

5. There have been no reported illnesses or deaths – yet.
The good news is nobody has fallen ill or died from the affected meat, according to the USDA. And chances are nobody will. Experts say that, unlike an E. coli outbreak or other bacterial or viral threat, eye cancer in cows doesn’t pose a significant health risk to humans who consume their meat. Still, the disease – or some other yet-to-be-revealed factor – is enough for the USDA to deem all meat that went through Rancho unfit for human consumption.