Every once in a while, we do have to wonder what the folks who run the public affairs section at the United States Department of Agriculture are thinking.  The latest example of where they poorly served both the public and their boss, US Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, came late Friday when a real improvement in recall policy was announced too late to get much attention.

The policy change is that beginning August, USDA will start listing retail stores receiving meat and poultry products involved in Class I recalls – those of the most serious concern to public health.

Why such an important improvement in recall policy was given the old Washington late Friday afternoon treatment is puzzling.   The food industry finds out such things immediately, so the only purpose would seem to limit attention from the consumer press.    In that, they may have succeeded.

Anyway, here’s some good news for the eating public from USDA’s big boss:

"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," said Schafer. "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 will improve public health protection by better informing consumers."

USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) will post on its Web site a list of retail stores that receive products subject to Class I recalls, the highest risk category, generally within three to ten business days of issuing the recall release.

A Class I recall is one that involves a reasonable probability of serious health consequences or death for those with weakened immune systems.

Retail stores include supermarkets or other grocery stores, convenience stores, meat markets, wholesale clubs and big box food stores.  However, FSIS will not identify distribution centers, institutions or restaurants, since those types of outlets prepare food for immediate consumption without packaging that is identifiable or available to consumers.

The Chino slaughterhouse scandal last year, which resulted in the largest beef recall in U.S. history, increase public demand for a list of receiving stores.    There some irony in fact that this policy change would not have produced such a list in the Chino case because it was a Class II recall.

Go here for USDA’s complete release.