Despite a spate of recent meat recalls, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering a new disclosure rule that would not identify the retailers where tainted meat was sold except in cases of serious health risk. The plan under consideration would exempt so-called "Class II" recalls, and make naming mandatory only with "Class I" recalls, which carry a greater public health risk.
According to the USDA, a Class I recall "involves a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death," while a Class II recall "involves a health hazard situation in which there is a remote possibility of adverse health consequences." As originally written, the rule would have included both types of recalls in the retailer notification provision, but the draft proposal was revised following February's Westland/Hallmark recall—the largest in the nation's history, affecting 143 million pounds of beef. That recall was a Class II recall.
The proposed change has drawn criticism from consumer advocates. "Whether it's a Class I recall or a Class II recall is irrelevant," said Kevin Coupe, founder of the retail news Web site morningnewsbeat.com. "If anything is recalled, consumers have a right to know what it is and where it was sold—and the government has a responsibility to tell us, as do retailers."
Coupe said many retailers not only favor notification, but often use their shopper card database to identify and contact shoppers who may have purchased recalled meat. "Retailers should look at this as a wonderful opportunity to build trust," Coupe said. "We live in a transparent society, and it's absurd to think we can impose secrecy."
If the proposed rule had been in place earlier this year, consumers outside of California would have received no retailer information on the Westland/Hallmark recall, initiated after video from animal rights activists showed workers abusing "downer cows" — cows that were unable to walk due to illness or injury. California law requires that all retailers who have sold recalled products be identified.
But some in the meat industry point to the California law as a reason why this approach doesn't work. The list of retailers from the Westland/Hallmark recall is 147 pages long and has been constantly updated.
The current recall method provides no retailer information at all. The Food Safety and Inspection Service simply issues a press release or Recall Notification Report on its web site, www.fsis.usda.gov, along with a photograph of the recalled product.