Where’s the recalled beef?

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By Consumers Union on Thursday, February 21st, 2008


On Sunday the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the recall of 143 million pounds of beef after the Humane Society of the United States released troubling videos of cattle that were too weak to walk apparently being prodded to slaughter.

The USDA has not yet specified where that meat was distributed and sold, prompting CU and other groups to call on U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer to make that information public. In a letter sent late Wednesday, the groups also asked Schafer to enact a rule proposed two years ago that would open such information to consumers in the future.

“There’s no law that requires the USDA to keep information on stores that sold recalled meat confidential,” said Jean Halloran, director of the food policy initiatives at the national consumer advocacy group. “That’s their own internal policy, and they can change it. In fact, they have been talking about changing it for the past two years—but they just haven’t acted yet.” (CU comments)

Traditionally, the USDA has kept information about schools, nursing homes, and retail outlets that receive meat involved in a recall secret from consumers and even from state health officials, unless the state agreed not to release the information to the public.

Two years ago, Consumers Union led a successful fight to circumvent USDA’s secrecy policy, at least in California, by requiring producers and distributors of meat sold there to notify the state’s Department of Public Health if their meat is recalled by USDA. California law now allows state health officials to release that information to the public. The law took effect July 1, 2007; the current huge recall is viewed as the first test of whether the new policy is actually working.

Early reviews are not promising. Elisa Odabashian, director of Consumers Union’s West Coast Office in San Francisco, said her inquiries suggest that state health officials still do not have detailed information on retail sales, and she expressed concern that some of the recalled beef might still be in the freezers of California schools.

“It does not appear that the new state law is working,” said Odabashian, “and there’s no excuse for that, particularly because this was a California meat producer that was subject to inspections by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.”

The recalled meat was processed at Westland/Hallmark Meat in Chino, CA. Perhaps one-third of it went to federal food and nutrition programs—most of which probably wound up in school lunches.

The incident is the latest in a series of food safety failures, the CU advocates said. The current issue of Consumer Reports, which is published by the consumer group, carries an article on a recent rise in beef contaminated with E. coli. And a January 2007 report on bacterial contamination of chicken revealed that the chance of buying chicken carrying Campylobacter or Salmonella had jumped sharply from CR’s analysis four years earlier.

There are no reports of illness linked to the latest recall, federal health officials emphasized. But the Consumers Union experts said that the incident highlights a gaping hole in the food safety net. “In this case, for over two years the inspectors at this plant failed to notice that ‘downer’ cows [those that could not stand and thus might be sick] were being sent into the food supply, which is not supposed to happen,” says Halloran.

She and Odabashian say they hope the immense publicity surrounding the episode will force the government to change its policy. Says Odabashian: “This is a travesty. It’s unfortunate that only this kind of incident gets people fired up enough to demand change.”

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