The recall of tainted meat products is surrounded by secrecy that protects the food industry at the expense of public health, critics say.
The Spokesman-Review filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the identities of more than 580 distributors, restaurants and grocery stores that received 19 tons of beef recalled after a Washington state cow tested positive for mad cow disease in December.
The information exists in government files. But the newspaper’s request was denied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency cited exemptions protecting the trade secrets of private enterprise.
Where the meat was sold must be reconstructed from news reports and grocery store press releases, not from government documents.
Critics say more openness would protect public health by giving consumers the names of stores and restaurants that receive recalled meat and poultry. Consumers then could more easily determine whether they have purchased any recalled product.
As the system works today, government press releases on recalls describe the meat product, where it was processed and sometimes the states that received it, but no specific names of grocery stores or restaurants.
The scientists who track outbreaks of food-borne illness want change. The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists adopted a position statement on the issue June 10. Epidemiologists say more information would assist their investigations and possibly save lives.
In addition, a bill in the California Legislature, if it becomes law, would circumvent the USDA by requiring California meat processors and distributors involved in a USDA recall to report distribution lists to the state. The state then would notify the public.
And some members of Congress want to give the USDA the authority to conduct mandatory recalls. All food recalls, with the exception of infant formula, now are voluntary on the part of industry. Critics say the voluntary recall program has no teeth, that the 1967 law it’s based upon is long overdue for a substantial update.
Pressure also is coming from the courts. A class-action lawsuit filed in King County against QFC supermarkets contends the chain should have contacted individual customers it knew purchased the recalled beef from the mad-cow case because the customers used discount club cards. The supermarket chain lost a motion to dismiss the case on June 14. QFC had argued that the state doesn’t have jurisdiction in the case, but a King County Superior Court judge ruled otherwise.
About 50 QFC customers have given their names to the large law firm handling the case, Hagens Berman. Attorney Nick Styant-Browne, who is working on the case, thinks thousands of customers may have bought recalled hamburger from QFC.
QFC notified its customers of the mad cow recall by posting small signs in its meat departments. Other grocery chains also posted signs or issued press releases that didn’t name specific stores. Few restaurants notified customers at all.
Trail of meat
The infected cow was slaughtered Dec. 9. Before the mad cow test results were announced Dec. 22, the carcass had traveled from Vern’s Moses Lake Meats slaughterhouse to Midway Meats in Centralia, Wash., where the meat was removed for processing. From there, the meat traveled to two companies: Interstate Meat Distributors in Clackamas, Ore., and Willamette Valley Meat in Portland.
Along the way, the meat from the single infected cow and others Vern’s slaughtered that day, which also became part of the recall, had been mixed with meat from other cattle, the USDA has said. It was made into ground beef, jerky and other products. The products landed in stores including Fred Meyer, Safeway, QFC, WinCo and Albertsons, according to news reports and press releases from the stores.
The meat products crossed the threshold of 582 establishments in six states, including Washington and Idaho, the USDA reported. The public still doesn’t have a complete list of exactly where the beef went.
In fact, consumers ate much of the beef in the two-week period between slaughter and recall.
It’s unclear exactly how much of the product was returned, although the USDA estimates that 21,000 pounds of the 38,000 pounds of recalled beef came back. That rate of returned product, about 55 percent, would be an extraordinarily high figure compared with average return rates in past recalls.
The returned meat, including tens of thousands of pounds returned that weren’t actually part of the recall, all went into landfills, said Steven Cohen, senior press officer with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
An estimated 5,000 Americans die of food-borne illnesses annually. But neither the USDA nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can require a food recall.
All the agencies can do is request a recall and assist in carrying it out.
If the industry does not cooperate, the government can get a court order and seize the contaminated product, but that has never happened.
“No company has ever refused to conduct a recall,” the USDA’s Cohen said. In the case of the mad cow disease recall, he said, the major grocery chains issued press releases to media outlets within hours of the USDA press release.
“Other stores posted signs telling their customers to bring product back, just to be sure. Consumers received accurate information quickly, which is (our) goal.”
In addition, risk from eating the meat was negligible, Cohen said, because the parts of the cow that carry the disease, such as the brain and spinal cord, were not processed for food. Eating meat contaminated with the mad cow agent can cause a fatal brain-wasting disease in humans.
New USDA guidelines, issued after the mad cow incident, allow the agency to begin collecting product distribution information at slaughter plants once a test becomes a presumptive positive and before a final confirmation of the test results.
But in December, days passed between the preliminary test result and grocery stores notifying customers. The Christmas holiday also slowed the efforts of some stores to reach customers. (In future mad cow testing, new rules require plants to hold carcasses of animals until test results come back negative.)
Just before the recall began, Interstate Meat Distributors knew it had received the meat and wanted to begin contacting its customers. USDA officials told the company to wait for official word from its recall committee, said Interstate spokesman Loran Hickton. Official word came late the next day. The delay was frustrating to the company, Hickton said.
Once the recall became official, Interstate’s customers returned 250,000 pounds of ground beef, although the company recalled only 12,000 pounds. All went to a landfill. A family business, the company lost $1 million and temporarily laid off 36 workers after the recall, Hickton said.
Carol Tucker Foreman, director of Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America and a former USDA assistant secretary, said sometimes meat processors stall the process purposely to cut their losses.
“A company that has contracted for meat to be delivered on the next day is reasonably inclined not to reject USDA overture. However, they’ll get their lawyers and statistical people in and argue with the USDA’s lawyers and statistical people (over how much meat should be recalled),” Foreman said. “They negotiate for several days and during all that time, the meat remains on the market and no public announcement is made and the meat continues to be eaten.
“The longer you stomp your feet and appeal to senators, the less meat you get back. The less you get back, the more money you save.”
E. coli and other bugs
Recalls happen more frequently than many consumers realize. Last week, Wolverine Packing Co., of Detroit, voluntarily recalled more than 50 tons of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. The meat had been shipped nationwide and was sold under more than 20 labels, all listed on the USDA’s recall Web site (easiest to find by going to www.recalls.gov).
The notice says the product was shipped to “foodservice distributors,” but none is named specifically.
The recall was designated high risk, or Class I, by the USDA. The mad cow recall was low risk, or Class II.
Cooking meat to 160 degrees kills E. coli. Eating undercooked meat contaminated with E. coli can be deadly, especially to the elderly and children.
The incidence of E. coli infection in Americans has declined 42 percent since 1996.
The USDA gets some credit. It began requiring its 6,000 federally inspected meat, poultry and egg plants to have hazard control plans beginning in 1997. Public awareness of the danger of eating undercooked meat has increased because of high-profile cases such as the 1993 Jack in the Box hamburger outbreak.
Other recent recalls have involved undercooked hot dogs, pork rinds possibly carrying salmonella and frozen dumplings that may contain pieces of glass.
In March, USDA officials faced tough questions on the mad cow recall from the House Committee on Appropriations. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, asked why the USDA doesn’t release more information that could help consumers during this exchange with USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano:
Kaptur: “… You say that 3,000 pounds of bones were used for soup at California restaurants, but you won’t say where. You’re saying you can’t give out information about where products were sold because you think it is proprietary, but yet you don’t ask for legislative authority to address this so that consumers can act in their own self-defense and find recalled products and protect their own health. … Madame secretary, could you explain what is proprietary about it?”
Murano: “Distribution lists are the customer lists of companies, and so this is something that is part of their – as I am told by the lawyers – business information. I am sure you do know that whenever there is a recall like the (mad cow) recall, retailers inform their consumers, their customers.
“What we do at FSIS with our verification checks is to make sure of three things. One is that all the businesses involved in a recall inform their customers, and that includes their retailers informing consumers. They put up signs, and I have an example of a sign that one of the retailers put up in their store to make sure their customers knew that products sold at that store were involved in the recall. The second thing that we do is to ensure that we can collect all the product that is returned, and the third thing is that it is disposed of properly.”
Later, Murano reminded Kaptur that the risk in the mad cow recall was “virtually nonexistent.”
Kaptur: “Would you like to eat it?”
Murano: “Yes, I would not mind eating it, absolutely, because it does not contain the tissues, the brain, the spinal cord, the small intestine which contain the infectious agent in this case.”
The committee also heard from the USDA’s Office of Inspector General, which is conducting a criminal investigation and a broader audit of how USDA handled the mad cow case.
The office had made 31 recommendations for tightening up the USDA recall process after its audit of the 2002 recall of ConAgra Beef Co. products.
The agency still has not replied fully to 21 of the recommendations.