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California Lawmakers Target Secrecy of Contaminated Meat Recalls

Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Elisa Odabashian – 415-431-6747

Legislation Targets State’s Secrecy Agreement With USDA That Kept Consumers In the Dark About Mad Cow Disease Infected Beef

(SACRAMENTO, CA) – Earlier this year, news accounts indicated that California was one of seven states that received a shipment of beef products subject to a USDA recall because it included meat and bones from a cow that tested positive for mad cow disease. But California consumers had no way of knowing whether their local grocery store or restaurant received any of these tainted products because the state had agreed to keep that information secret. To prevent this from happening in the future, two state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would ensure consumers are notified of any retail outlets in their community that have received recalled beef or poultry.
“Consumers have a right to know whether the food they are buying could be hazardous to their health,” said Elisa Odabashian, Senior Policy Analyst with Consumers Union’s West Coast Regional Office. “The state’s secrecy agreement with the USDA protects the beef and poultry industry while putting California consumers at risk.”
In 2002, the California Department of Health Services (DHS) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the USDA agreeing to keep secret the names of the retail outlets selling food subject to beef and poultry recalls. The USDA shares information about retailers that have received tainted beef and poultry only with states that sign such agreements. The agency maintains that secrecy is necessary in order to protect the proprietary interests of the beef and poultry industries. But this policy leaves consumers in the dark about which retail outlets may be selling these hazardous products.
The Memorandum of Understanding requiring secrecy covers all recalls of unsafe beef and poultry – not just the recent recall of beef that tested positive for mad cow disease. Recalls of beef and poultry products tainted with other hazards, such as E.coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, also would be covered by the secrecy agreement.
SB 1585, introduced by Senators Jackie Speier and Mike Machado, would require all beef and poultry product suppliers, distributors and processors who sell meat in California subject to a USDA recall to immediately identify to the state the names and locations of retailers that received these contaminated products. The bill requires the California Department of Health Services to provide this information within 24 hours to local health officials so that they can alert the public. The bill also requires the agency to submit copies of all Memorandum of Understanding pertaining to food and food-related products to the Legislature for review by January 1, 2005.
“The USDA should not be coercing states to abide by secrecy agreements about tainted beef and poultry and California officials should not be withholding information about these hazards from consumers,” said Odabashian. “This bill will ensure that the state receives the information it needs to respond to such food recalls and that consumers are properly alerted so they can take steps to protect their health.”
Last week, Senators Machado and Speier introduced another bill that would make California the first state in the nation to require all cattle slaughtered or sold to be certified as testing negative for mad cow disease. SB 1425 requires licensed slaughterers in California to test all cattle carcasses for the deadly brain wasting disease. Under the bill, these carcasses must be embargoed for sale until the slaughterhouse receives test results certifying that the cow was negative for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). The slaughterhouse would be required to report every positive test result to the State Veterinarian and the USDA. In addition, the bill requires all importers of beef into the state for re-sale to be able to certify that the beef is BSE-negative.
Consumers Union has urged the federal government to vastly expand its testing program, fully ban the feeding of any animal remains to cows, and immediately disclose to states and the public, all retail outlets and restaurants from which meat was recalled because it came from an infected cow.