USDA to name retailers in meat recalls

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Jul 11, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – To help consumers figure out whether they have bought potentially contaminated food, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced today it will name retail stores that received meat and poultry products involved in high-risk product recalls.

The move, long sought by consumer groups, comes more than 2 years after the USDA formally proposed it in March 2006. But today's announcement immediately drew criticism from at least one consumer group for covering only Class I recalls, those involving foods posing the most risk.

"The identity of retail stores with recalled meat and poultry from their suppliers has always been a missing piece of information for the public during a recall," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said in a USDA news release.

"People want to know if they need to be on the lookout for recalled meat and poultry from their local store and by providing lists of retail outlets during recalls, USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service [FSIS] will improve public health protection by better informing consumers," he said.

The FSIS will post on its Web site a list of retail stores that receive products subject to Class I recalls, generally within 3 to 10 business days of issuing the recall release, the USDA said. Class I recalls are for foods that pose a "reasonable probability" of causing serious health consequences or even death, according to the FSIS.

The agency will list only retail stores, not distribution centers, institutions, or restaurants, since they serve food for immediate consumption without identifiable packaging, the agency said. The new rule will take effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register. That will happen sometime next week, according to a report today by Meatingplace.com, an industry publication.

Until now, the USDA has announced the names of businesses issuing recalls along with the reason for the recall, a description of the products, any identifying product codes, the recall classification, and contact information for the company involved.

The leader of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer rights group based in Washington, DC, welcomed the USDA announcement but said the agency should list retail stores involved in all classes of recalls.

"After years of bureaucratic delay, we are encouraged to see that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has finally decided to disclose the names of retailers where meat and poultry products subject to Class I recalls are sold," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the group, in a statement.

"But unfortunately, due to pressure from the White House, the new rule stops short of the changes necessary to fully protect consumers," she added. "The rule does not include Class II and Class III recalls—recalls that FSIS views as less urgent based on the agency's estimate of the health threat posed by the product."

Hauter noted that the massive Westland/Hallmark beef recall earlier this year—issued because the company had processed disabled ("downer") cattle into food, violating a federal ban designed to protect against bovine spongiform encephalopathy—was a Class II recall. "Consumers would have remained in the dark about where the products from that recall were sold had this rule been in effect at that time," she said.

Class II recalls are those in which the probability of harm from eating the food is considered "remote," according to the FSIS. Class III recalls involve foods that are not considered dangerous to eat.

The Meatingplace.com report said the Westland/Hallmark recall—the largest in US history at 143 million pounds—strengthened the push for the naming of retail stores involved in recalls.

Richard Raymond, USDA under secretary for food safety, told reporters the agency would rely on meat processors to identify which distributors, wholesalers, and retailers received their products, according to Meatingplace.com. Processors have generally provided such information voluntarily, but the USDA has statutory authority to require it if necessary, the report said.

See also:

Jul 11 USDA news release

Mar 7, 2006, CIDRAP News story "USDA may name retailers in meat recalls"

Jul 11 Food and Water Watch statement

Feb 18 CIDRAP News story "Animal-cruelty probe leads to US's biggest meat recall"

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