WHERE'S THE (TAINTED) BEEF?: The USDA announced last week that it would reveal the names of markets that sold tainted meant involved in product recalls that pose serious health risks. Image: © ISTOCKPHOTO/RYAN SCOTT
Beginning next month, consumers will be able to check an online list of stores that sold or stocked recalled meat. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) secretary Ed Shafer said the move is designed to prevent stores from continuing to sell tainted food and, also, alert consumers who might be at risk if they shopped at certain markets.
The USDA currently only discloses the manufacturer of tainted fare and the states in which it was sold. Now, the department's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) will post a list on its Web site of retailers that received shipments of the contaminated meat within three to 10 days of recalls.
The new policy only covers so-called Class I recalls, defined by the FSIS as those "in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death." The USDA regulates all meat, poultry and egg products; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has jurisdiction over other the rest of the food supply.
"People want to know if they need to be on the lookout for recalled meat and poultry from their local store," Shafer said during a recent news conference. "By providing lists of retail outlets during recalls, USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service will improve public health protection by better informing consumers."
The move comes in the wake of the recall of 5.3 million pounds (2.4 million kilograms) of ground beef produced by Nebraska Beef, Ltd., which the FSIS says was sold at Kroger supermarkets in Michigan and Ohio. The meat was possibly contaminated with Escherichia coli O157:H7, a strain of the bacteria that causes stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the infection typically lasts five to seven days, but it can be much more severe in infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems, even resulting in death due to kidney failure. Last year, the USDA ordered a recall of over 29 million pounds (9.5 million kilograms) of ground beef from various producers due to an E. coli outbreak that sickened 170 people and resulted in 53 hospitalizations across the nation.
Food industry representatives beefed that the list could be confusing. "Imagine the impracticality of developing complete lists of stores that carry, say, spinach and tomatoes," the Food Marketing Institute said in a statement. ."
But consumer advocates applauded the move. Consumers Union (CU), which publishes the magazine Consumer Reports, praised the USDA for providing information vital to shoppers' health. "Consumers will know to check what they might have in the refrigerator and get rid of it if it is part of a recall," CU's food policy initiatives director Jean Halloran said in a statement. "This is a change that can give consumers peace of mind, and in certain cases avoid serious illness and even save lives." But she said that it did not go far enough, insisting that Class II recalls (those the FSIS deems as posing "remote" health dangers) should also be included.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D–Conn.) agreed, noting that this list would not cover the nation's largest meat recall—the February Class II recall of some 143 million pounds (64.9 million kilograms) of beef from a Chino, Calif., facility run by Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company, which was slaughtering and selling cattle so sick they could not stand up.
"The next step should be to apply this rule to all recalls," she said, "as well as requiring the department to list the school districts that may have received products subject to recall."