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USDA to Name Retailers in Some Recalls

Jul 14, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Federal regulators are changing the way meat recalls are handled.  The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it will now publish the names of retailers that received shipments of meat subject to Class I recalls.  Previously, the USDA had kept such information confidential, a policy that garnered the agency much criticism.

Lawmakers and consumer advocates began calling on the USDA to change its meat recall policy earlier this year, when Hallmark/Westland was forced to recall 143 million pounds of potentially tainted meat.  The Hallmark/Westland beef recall came just weeks after disturbing undercover video shot by the Humane Society showed workers at the plant using several abusive techniques to make sick animals stand up and pass a pre-slaughter inspection. These included ramming cattle with forklift blades and using a hose to simulate the feeling of drowning.

A USDA veterinarian is supposed to check each downer cow and make sure it’s not diseased, but according to the Humane Society that didn’t happen.    The government in most cases bars “downer” cows — which can’t walk or stand on their own — from the food supply. It implemented the rule in 2003 because an inability to walk is a possible symptom of mad-cow disease, which can cause a rare but fatal brain disorder.  

The Hallmark/Westland meat recall, which included products processed as far back as 2006, was the largest meat recall in US history.  Despite the scope of the recall, the USDA refused to name the retailers that may have sold the potentially tainted meat. Following the Hallmark/Westland recall, lawmakers in the House of Representatives introduced a bill to require the federal government to release the names of all stores and restaurants that received recalled food.  

Now, the USDA has decided to publish the names of retailers that sold tainted meat when it issues its most serious type of  recall, a Class I recall. Class I recalls involve a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death.  The rule will take effect in August, 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register.

At least one lawmaker says the USDA's plan does not go far enough, and wants the department to publish retailer names in Class II recalls.   Class II recalls involve a potential health hazard situation in which there is a remote probability of adverse health consequences from eating the food.

"I am very disappointed that this new rule would apply only to Class I recalls," Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, said in a statement. "The next step should be to apply this rule to all recalls."

Had the new rule been in affect during the Hallmark/Westland meat recall, consumers still would not have been told what retailers received the company's meat.  That recall was designated Class II by the USDA.

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