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Food Recall Bill Would Require More Disclosure

Apr 16, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP A bill introduced this past Friday in the US House of Representatives would require the federal government to release the names of all stores and restaurants that receive recalled food.  The bill was sponsored by Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat-Connecticut and was developed following the massive recall—the largest in US history—of 143 million pounds of beef from the Chino Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company slaughterhouse.  "When a food safety recall occurs, consumers should be able to know which stores or schools received the potentially contaminated products so that they can better protect their families and this bill would accomplish just that," DeLauro said.  Meanwhile, a proposal is being considered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to omit retailer information when tainted meat is recalled.  The exception to this would be in the case of serious health risks.

California is unique in that it requires that a list of retailers that receive recalled meat be disclosed regardless of the level of public risk.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat-California, introduced a similar bill in the Senate late last month.  Federal rules say that this information is proprietary and not subject to disclosure except when a serious health risk exists. As a matter-of-fact, California's list of retailers from the Westland/Hallmark recall is nearly 150 pages long.

According to a government report released last week, there has been no reduction in the number of food borne infections.  The 10-state report issued by government researchers found no change in the rate of infections caused by Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, E.coli O157, and several other bacteria in 2007 compared with the previous three years.  The report actually showed an increase in Cryptosporidium—a parasite which causes diarrhea—levels in recent years.  In the past two years, high-profile food safety scares have involved peanut butter, spinach, milk, meat, and other products and have placed increased pressure on lawmakers to protect the nation's food supply.

Chris Connelly, Agriculture Department spokesman, confirmed that the USDA is looking into whether or not to make disclosing store names be required for "Class I" recalls.  This class of recall poses greatest health hazard, whereas "Class II" pose minimal risk to human health.  Today, the government discloses only that a recall occurs and does not indicate those retailers that might have received recalled meat or vegetables.  Consumer groups and Democratic lawmakers argue that the public should be provided with the retailers’ names in every meat recall.  The rule, in its original context was meant to have been applicable to all meat recalls.  

Currently, when there is a recall, a description of the product is released by the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) with other information including where the item was produced.  Under recall procedures, retailers must remove recalled meat from their shelves and are not required to notify customers about meat already sold.  Industry groups are concerned that if Class I recalls are covered, the rule could confuse consumers because retailer lists of such items could be incomplete or take days or weeks to compile and customers could be left with a false sense of security if a particular market is not immediately listed.


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