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Theno said the meat represented "a substantial amount of product" for Jack in the Box.

About 40 percent of a typical fast-food hamburger patty consists of fat and fat trimmings. The remainder is the type of lean beef that Rancho produced from dairy cows it purchased, said Theno, who was senior vice president and chief food safety officer for Jack in the Box. The company hired him after a 1993 scandal in which its burgers were blamed for a massive food illness outbreak in which four children died.

Depending on the blend of lean to fat beef, and on the size of the hamburger patties, one million pounds of beef could produce 4 million quarter-pound patties to 9 million smaller patties, said Theno, a Meat Industry Hall of Fame member.

Rancho did not sell directly to Jack in the Box, but to a meat grinding operation that then sold patties to the fast food firm, said Theno. He said that the grinder, which he would not identify because of his links to the industry, also supplied other fast food chains. All had been affected by the recall, he said.

"I know for a fact that these guys (the grinder) produce for both Jack as well as other providers, major fast food people, and you've got to go out to everyone" in a recall, Theno said.

The breakdown in the food safety chain in the Rancho case already has caused a reassessment at the major fast-food chains, Theno said.

"This is a situation, everyone in the stream takes a look at, 'OK, we aren't having any fun here, what do we need to be doing to make sure this isn't happening on our watch again,'" he said.

There likely has been a burst of legal activity in the wake of the recall, said Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety attorney who publishes Food Safety News, an online news service.

From end users like Jack in the Box, through the grinders that supply them, through any middlemen, to the original slaughterhouse, each party relies on the actions of the one preceding it in the chain of distribution, Marler said.

"Jack in the Box would be the downstream entity making claims upstream," he said. "I would be shocked at this stage, given the amount of product being recalled and the number of stores and now restaurants being implicated, if there weren't claims being made."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.