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USDA May Keep Retailers Secret in Meat Recalls

Mar 29, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

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. The USDA has been under a great deal of pressure from the food industry to adopt such a policy.

Last month, the USDA announced that the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company was recalling 143 million pounds—65 million kilos—of meat, following a videotape of plant workers forcing unfit cattle into slaughter.  Most of the meat was likely consumed; at least 37 million pounds were used for school lunches and federal nutrition programs, according to the USDA.  Now, people are wondering if anyone fell ill from the recall and if E. coli was involved.  Had the proposal been in place last month, the public not have known if their stores sold meat from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company.

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.  "It's unacceptable to us because of the way the rule was originally fashioned and we have an immediate example of the Hallmark case being exempted," said Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group.  Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer said there are "differences with the different classes of recalls.  But, you know, a Class I recall, to have a retailer notification, I think, is important."

Currently, when there is a recall, a description of the recalled product is released by the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) with other information including where the recalled item was produced.  Although under recall procedures, retailers must remove recalled meat from their shelves, they are not required to notify customers about meat already sold; some retailers will voluntarily do this.  Consumers may be able to identify prepackaged foods the Agriculture Department mentions by brand name; however, in the case of products such as ground beef, which is repackaged at grocery stores, there is not generally any identifying information alerting customers that the product was recalled.

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.  Some groups point to California, unique in that it has a law requiring disclosure of retailers' names in recalls.  As a matter-of-fact, California's list of retailers resulting from the Westland/Hallmark recall is nearly 150 pages long.


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