William D. Marler – Op-ed

When we hear that there has been a recall of hamburger tainted with Salmonella Newport, how many of us would know which company slaughtered the cow and ground the meat? Would we know that the meat came from Beef Packers Inc. (a.k.a. Cargill), or would we only know the store we bought the meat from? My guess it would be the store only. So, why do we not yet know completely where the contaminated meat was sold? Here is what we do know.

On August 6, 2009 Fresno-based Beef Packers Inc. (a.k.a. Cargill) recalled nearly 826,000 pounds (over 400 tons) of ground beef produced from June 5-23. Health officials in three Western states said last Friday at least 40 people have reported illnesses tied to the recalled ground beef. Colorado health officials said 21 people there have been sickened. California officials said five people have reported sick (we know one has been hospitalized). Wyoming health officials reported that two people have fallen ill. Officials are investigating other reported illnesses in Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, South Dakota and Texas that may be linked to the same strain of Salmonella.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) says the beef was sent to retail distribution centers in Arizona, California, Colorado and Utah, but has been silent on what stores sold the tainted beef. California Department of Health, however, has announced that some of the meat was sold at Safeway Inc. and Sam’s Club.

So, why the silence from FSIS and Beef Packers Inc. (a.k.a. Cargill)? Here is some history – on August 18, 2008 after years of hand wringing, the FSIS finally put public health before “proprietary” business interests when it made the following rule: 9 C.F.R. § 390.10 Availability of Lists of Retail Consignees during Meat or Poultry Product Recalls:

The Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service will make publicly available the names and locations of retail consignees of recalled meat or poultry products that the Agency compiles in connection with a recall where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product could cause serious adverse health consequences or death.

The Bottom Line: The FSIS is now supposed to make available to the public names and locations of retail consignees (grocery stores, etc.) of meat and poultry products recalled by a federally-inspected meat or poultry establishment if the recalled product has been distributed to the retail level. The rule will only apply to Class I recalls (like this one). The information is supposed to be posted on the FSIS website, generally within three (3) to ten (10) working days, following the announcement of the recall.

So, why can California give the public a list in days but FSIS can not? More to the point, why can not Beef Packers Inc. (a.k.a. Cargill) give the same information?