USDA to Unmask Retailers in Class One Recalls

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USDA to Unmask Retailers in Class One Recalls

After years of resisting the notion, beginning next month the U.S. Department of Agriculture will identify stores selling meat and poultry products involved in Class I recalls, which are the recalls that the agency classifies as of most serious concern to public health.

Until now, USDA has publicly identified only the states where recalled product was distributed, along with supplier lot numbers that critics have said means nothing to shoppers. The agency said that for some recalls, specific product information useful to consumers has not been made available to help identify recalled products that may still be in their home.

"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," said Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, explaining the policy change. "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."

The American Meat Institute, however, is not convinced the rule is an improvement, and released a statement expressing strong opposition to the move.

“The most accurate way to make this determination is to rely upon product identifiers like code dates, plant numbers, and brands announced by recalling companies,” said Mark Dopp, AMI’s s.v.p., regulatory affairs and general counsel. “Although this rule seems consumer-friendly on its face, it has the potential to mislead and confuse consumers.”

Dopp said that during recalls, product distribution information could expand over time. “A meat company may have sold a product to 10 distributors, and each of those distributors may have sold some of the product to 10 brokers and each of those brokers may have sold products to 20 retail stores,” Dopp said. “This complex shipping information is compiled and updated over time. It is not typically available in a complete form when a recall is announced.”

Dopp claimed the proposed USDA rule was flawed because “if a consumer sees an early version of a list of businesses that received recalled product, that consumer may conclude that he could not have purchased the product,” he explained. “Three days later, the consumer’s local grocery store may appear on the list, but the consumer is unlikely to check the list again and may consume recalled products.”

As expected, consumer groups cheered the news.

"We're pleased that USDA will no longer keep consumers in the dark about recalled meat," said the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine. "Up until now, when USDA announced a recall of contaminated meat, it would only tell the public the states where the product was distributed. The specific names and locations of stores that got the product -- the information that can actually help the consumer -- were kept confidential."

The announcement provides a 30-day notice after the rule is published in the Federal Register before the process of listing retail stores takes effect.