by Chris O'Brien
On July 11, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer announced that, beginning in August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will list retail stores receiving meat and poultry products involved in Class I recalls — the most severe recall, with a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.
"The identity of retail stores with recalled meat and poultry from their suppliers has always been a missing piece of information for the public during a recall," Schafer said in a press release. "People want to know if they need to be on the lookout for recalled meat and poultry from their local store, and by providing lists of retail outlets during recalls, USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service will improve public health protection by better informing consumers."
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, praised the decision but expressed concern about several deficiencies in the rule.
"We are happy with the decision to announce Class I recalls, but we disagree with their position on Class II recalls," said Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union.
Class II recalls involve the risk of illness but not a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause adverse health consequences or death.
"So if eating the tainted food is only going to feel like too many Doritos or tequila sunrises, then they are not going to notify you," Halloran said. "But we think if the recall is serious enough for the USDA, then it should extend all the way to the kitchen."
FSIS will post a list of retail stores that receive products on its Web site within three to 10 business days of issuing a Class I recall. This includes supermarkets, grocery stores, convenience stores, meat markets, wholesale clubs and supercenters, although distribution centers, institutions and restaurants, as well as schools and retirement homes, will not be posted.
"The USDA's rationale for not including schools, nursing homes and restaurants is that the food gets cooked and served immediately so there won't be anything left to recall," Holloran said. "But we think these institutions should be included, that the USDA should maximize its effort to notify all people of a recall, especially in schools and nursing homes where the individuals eating the food can't protect themselves."
Halloran said that the dual mission of the USDA is likely governing some of the decision-making around recall announcements.
"There's really a conflict of interest in the USDA's dual mission," Halloran said. "They are charged first and foremost to promote U.S. agriculture, and second to protect the safety of meat and poultry. The intrinsic conflict between those two roles sometimes gets in the way of good policy."