September 25, 1997 in Nation/World

Public Not Told About Recalls Of Meat Industry Officials Say Notification Doesn’t Benefit Public Health

Scott Montgomery Cox News Service
 
Tags:safety

Restaurant and meat industry representatives oppose telling the public when possibly contaminated food is being recalled from commercial kitchens and schools, they told a hearing on the issue Wednesday.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman ordered the meeting after an investigation by Cox Newspapers showed the department doesn’t alert the public when tainted food has been shipped to fast-food franchises, school cafeterias and other institutions.

More than 1 million pounds of tainted meat and poultry have been recalled without public notice in the past three years, Agriculture Department records show. Since 1990, that number reportedly totals more than 20 million pounds.

The agency’s practice of withholding such information violates written department directives, but the Cox reports showed it was followed even with the most dangerous contaminants and even when portions of a tainted batch reached the consumer and was presumed eaten.

At the daylong meeting, industry representatives sparred with consumer advocates over the question of whether there is a public health benefit to notifying restaurant customers that a possibly tainted product had been sent to a particular eatery.

“We believe that public notification is vital,” said Heather Klinkhamer of Safe Tables Our Priority, a Chicago-based group formed by friends and relatives of victims of E. coli 0157:H7 poisoning. “It serves the public health function.”

Consumer groups said the public should know because that information allows them to decide what and where they’re willing to eat, and it also could help them to know what pathogens they may have been exposed to if they become ill in the midst of a local food recall.

But industry groups argued that public notification serves no purpose, since the food is being handled professionally and the consumer has no control over how it is prepared. They support the Agriculture Department’s policy of issuing press releases when tainted food is sent to grocery stores, because in those cases consumers are responsible for disposing of the product.

“In my opinion, where you are right now is about as judicious a place as you can be,” said Jim Hodges of the American Meat Institute.

He said sending out public notices for every food recall could be “a dangerous policy” that dulls public attention to food safety issues, making it harder to get the public to respond to a threat that requires consumer action.

“No one was protected (in the recent Hudson Foods ground beef recall) by announcing that implicated product went to Burger King,” said Robert E. Harrington, vice president of technical services and public health and safety for the National Restaurant Association. The policy “ought to remain discretionary, on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

In the meeting, the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which handles recall policies, also acknowledged that it gives companies no guidelines for record-keeping even though good distribution records are essential to tracking tainted product when a recall is necessary.

The director of the inspection service, Thomas Billy, said the comments collected Wednesday will be taken into account as the agency evaluates its notification policy.

“I thought it was useful,” Billy said.

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AT ISSUE

More than 1 million pounds of tainted meat and poultry have been recalled without public notice in the past three years, Agriculture Department records show.


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