Cindy Skrzycki of the Washington Post reports that for the first time, the Department of Agriculture is proposing that consumers be told which supermarkets and retail outlets have sold meat or poultry that is subject to a recall because of safety concerns.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service publicizes recalls by issuing a press release, describing the food being recalled and any identifying codes, the name of the company that produced it, a contact person and, more recently, a picture of the product.
Consumer groups have been pushing regulators to include the names of buyers, grocery stores, hospitals, nursing homes and restaurants.
In March, the FSIS issued a proposal that would notify the public of the retailers the agency can trace forward from the food processors or distributors. The agency has suggested that it might take some time to get all the names but is hoping the industry will cooperate in providing the information. The proposal does not set a timeframe for collecting and posting store names and locations on the agency’s Web site.
The comment period ends June 11, and industry groups already are expressing their opposition to the change, saying competitors would use the publicity to offer substitute products.
Some of the impetus behind the proposal came from Richard Raymond , who was the top health official in Nebraska before he became USDA undersecretary of food safety, joining his old boss, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns , who was governor of Nebraska.
“We have a really good recall system right now,” Raymond said in an interview. “I see this as a supplement to an already good system. This is the last step to get recalled product back.”
Now, a request for a recall can be initiated by a government inspector, the company or as the result of an outbreak of illness. But the actual recall of a product is voluntary. The USDA has only the authority to seize food or shut down a plant.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have the authority to order a mandatory recall and fine companies that do not cooperate. Attempts to pass legislation in Congress to mandate food safety recalls have failed.
There were 53 meat and poultry recalls last year covering 6.5 million pounds of products. This was down from 2002, when there were 113 recalls affecting 59 million pounds of beef and poultry.
Any information the agency has about the customers of the recalling company is considered proprietary.
The prospect of these names being made public led the National Meat Association, which represents meat processors and packers, to tell the agency in an open meeting in April that it should abandon the proposal.
“The publication of this information would be extremely advantageous to a firm’s competitors. A competitor would have the ability to identify specific retail locations . . . and then offer their products as an immediate substitute . . .,” said Brett Schwemer , an attorney representing the NMA.
“We’re opposed to it, and so is most every other trade association that has anything to do with food,” said Mark Dopp , senior vice president and general counsel for the American Meat Institute , which represents meat and poultry processors.
The AMI and other groups told the agency the new policy might give consumers a false sense of security if their stores are not on the list when they check it.
The National Grocers Association said the proposal is vague and will create another level of bureaucracy. Thomas Wenning, senior vice president and general counsel of the NGA, said the system works now because retailers pull the products off the shelves and out of the meat counters as soon as they learn there’s a problem.
The Food Marketing Institute noted that there are 16,000 distributors of meat and poultry that might need to be checked by the FSIS in compiling a list to make public, depending on the size of the recall.
Dopp also said the proposal may be of “questionable legality” because the FSIS now considers the names of retail distributors to be exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
Over the past few years, the USDA has made agreements with some 14 states under which it shares the names. But the states are not allowed to disclose that information. Consumer groups said that arrangement amounts to a gag order.
Raymond didn’t have access to the information as a state health official because Nebraska didn’t sign such an agreement. He said he thinks state and local health officials would use information on the Web site to announce recalls and to speed returns to stores.
FSIS spokesman Steven Cohen said the agency’s Web-based list will be developed so it is not subject to those restrictions.
California recently passed legislation that would require producers, distributors and suppliers to notify the state immediately when there is a recall. Local officials would then decide whether the information should be made public. The bill is on the governor’s desk, though a similar bill was vetoed in 2004.
Elisa Odabashian , senior policy analyst with Consumers Union , the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, said a recent poll showed 80 percent of the Californians surveyed said the state should publish the names of retailers and restaurants where recalled meat has been shipped and sold.
Raymond said he understands that the industry does not want to change the way it does business, but he hopes it will volunteer the information.
“They have to decide that public health is a non-competitive issue,” he said.