Meat Recalls Mired in Secrecy
PAUL WENSKE / Kansas City Star 23feb2008
The recent record recall of 143 million pounds of raw and frozen beef from a California slaughterhouse was pretty chilling.
The recall was triggered by undercover video taken by the Humane Society of cows too sick to stand being dragged and prodded across the slaughtering floor.
But here’s something else that might disturb you: If you wanted to find out whether your neighborhood grocery sold any of that meat, forget it. It’s classified.
Even most state health officials aren’t told where bad meat ends up. Even when they are told, the government makes them keep those details secret from the public.
This long-held practice of secrecy was supposed to be lifted.
In June 2006, I wrote about a U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal that would publicly disclose all retail stores where bad meat was traced up the food chain of distributors and other sellers.
But the proposal seems stuck somewhere between the USDA and the Office of Management and Budget, which has to give the final nod before the rule is published.
“We don’t know what the holdup is,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute. “We’re having a hard time getting it over the final hurdle.”
Earlier this month — just days before the Westland/Hallmark meat recall — eight consumer groups known as the Safe Food Coalition wrote to the USDA, urging it to “immediately approve” the proposed disclosure rule.
The groups said “this important consumer protection measure” should be implemented swiftly to help families “properly identify whether recalled products may be in their possession.”
Amanda Eamich, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the proposal has cleared the USDA and is sitting at the management and budget office.
She said the USDA expects the rule to be published in the first half of the year.
Industry groups had opposed the rule. They said it could provide too much of a marketing edge to the competitors of a retail store identified as selling bad meat.
They also argued the proposal added little to an already efficient recall system, pointing out that consumers can find out the name of a product and often lot codes, which reflect the date of processing.
Even so, health experts said consumers were being kept in the dark. They said knowing where you bought your meat brings home the urgency of a recall.
The rule also would counter the appearance for years that the USDA has been overly chummy with the meat industry. The USDA has been criticized for not responding more swiftly to potential health hazards.
Meat recalls are different than other recalls. Consider that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have the authority to order a mandatory recall and even fine companies.
In contrast, the USDA lacks the authority to require a recall. It can threaten only to withhold an inspection or keep a packer’s meat out of the supply chain. But all meat recalls are voluntary. So most are started by a meat company, after a government inspection or in response to reported illnesses.
The meat companies use their own proprietary customer lists in tracking the distribution of meat to retail outlets.
The USDA has traditionally exempted the lists from public disclosure. That means even some state health officials end up blindly trying to run down information.
There is one exception to this practice. The USDA has agreements with about a dozen states, including Kansas, in which health officials can get the names of stores that were sent recalled meat. But health officials in those states must also pledge to keep that information secret.
Until the proposed rule is published, this information will remain largely a secret — at least to consumers.