Under pressure from the food industry, the Agriculture Department is considering a proposal not to identify retailers where tainted meat went for sale except in cases of serious health risk, The Associated Press has learned.
Had that been the rule in place last month, consumers would not have been told if their supermarkets sold meat from a Southern California slaughterhouse that triggered the biggest beef recall in U.S. history.
The plan is being considered as the USDA puts the final touches on a proposed disclosure rule. It had lingered in draft form for two years until getting pushed to the forefront in February, when 143 million pounds of beef were recalled by Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., after undercover video by an animal-rights activist showed workers abusing crippled cows.
Agriculture Department spokesman Chris Connelly confirmed Wednesday that the agency is weighing whether to make naming the stores mandatory only for so-called "Class I" recalls, which pose the greatest health hazard. The Chino recall was categorized as "Class II" because authorities determined there was minimal risk to human health.
Currently, the government discloses only a recall itself. It does not list which retailers might have received recalled meat. The same holds true for recalled vegetables.
Consumer groups and Democratic lawmakers contend that the public should have access to the names of retailers in all meat recalls. As originally written, the rule would have applied 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.
At an appearance in Sacramento, Calif., earlier this week, 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," Schafer said.
Partly for competitive reasons, industry groups support the way recalls are currently done, where a description of the recalled product is released by the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service along with some other information including where it was produced.
Retailers must remove recalled meat from their shelves, but there's no requirement that they notify their customers about meat already sold, though some take voluntary steps to do so.
Consumers may be able to identify prepackaged foods like hot dogs that the Agriculture Department mentions by brand name, but with ground beef or other items that are repackaged at grocery stores, there's usually no identifying information on the package to tell consumers it's a recalled item.
Kristi Thacker, a registered nurse in the small town of Eldon in central Missouri, said she had no idea the frozen ground beef in her freezer, purchased at her local grocery store, was tainted until her 5-year-old daughter became sick from E. coli. This was during a recall in 2002 and her daughter, Savana, has now recovered.
"My child would not have gotten sick if they would have told me that I had bad hamburger. I would have thrown it away," Thacker said in an interview Wednesday. "Instead, a month later, with bad hamburger sitting in my freezer the whole time, she became deathly ill."
Stories like Thacker's have led consumer groups to argue that customers need more information, a position shared by Dr. Richard Raymond, who made publishing the retailer rule a top priority when he took over as the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food safety in 2005.
In an interview this week Raymond said that it was "common sense to assume" that some consumers may have fallen ill because they didn't have access to names of retailers selling tainted meat. But he disputed the suggestion that industry opposition — expressed in written and public comments, meetings with the White House Office of Management and Budget, and other venues — has stalled the rule.
"It's going through the normal process," Raymond said. "It does unfortunately take a long time to go through the normal process."
Industry groups argue that even if just Class I recalls are covered, the rule could create confusion for consumers since retailer lists could be incomplete or take days or weeks to compile. Customers could have a false sense of security if their grocery store doesn't immediately show up on the list, the groups contend.
Some cite the example of California, which is unique among states in having a law requiring disclosure of retailers' names in recalls. California's list of retailers from the Westland/Hallmark recall is 147 pages long and has been continuously updated.