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Letter urges Schwarzenegger to sign bill on meat recalls

May 16, 2006
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
State Capitol Building
Sacramento, CA 95814
Dear Governor Schwarzenegger:
Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, urges you to sign SB 611 (Speier) into law. This legislation would prevent California from keeping secret the names of retailers selling potentially tainted, recalled meat. SB 611 would require meat and poultry distributors and processors that sell their products in California to notify the California Department of Health Services (DHS) of the names and locations of retailers that receive potentially contaminated recalled meat, and would require public health officers to notify the public.
Consumers Union recently engaged the polling services of the Field Research Corporation to conduct a statewide, random sample survey of California adults on the topic of public notification of meat recalls. Eighty percent of Californians believe that the public should be told the names of retail stores and restaurants that receive and sell USDA-recalled beef and poultry. I am enclosing a copy of the Field survey results.
In September of 2002, DHS signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the USDA agreeing to keep secret the names of retail outlets selling beef and poultry subject to a USDA recall. The USDA’s policy is not to share with states information about retailers that have received tainted beef and poultry unless a secrecy agreement has been signed by a state. The agency has maintained that secrecy is necessary in order to protect the proprietary interests of the beef and poultry industries. But this policy has left consumers in the dark about which retail outlets may be selling potentially hazardous products. California’s Memorandum of Understanding requiring secrecy covers all recalls of unsafe beef and poultry including those tainted with mad cow disease, E. coli, listeria, and industrial chemicals.
You vetoed a similar bill, SB 1585, last legislation session. In your veto message, you instructed DHS to renegotiate the MOU it signed with USDA. But no renegotiation has taken place between the two agencies, and the secrecy agreement between the state and USDA still stands.
In January 2004, 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 retailers received any of these tainted products because the state had agreed to keep that information secret. To prevent this from happening in the future, SB 611 would enable California consumers to be notified of retail outlets in their community that receive recalled beef or poultry.
A USDA proposal that is currently on the table and open for public comment would allow the public to learn the names of retailers that receive recalled meat. While this proposal is a step in the right direction, the protections it offers could, at the end of the day, be weak. The proposal exempts restaurants and intermediary distributors, and it does not hold USDA to a deadline by which the information would be made public. If the USDA does not post this information for two, three, four weeks or longer, it will be useless to consumers in their attempts to protect themselves and their families from consuming bad meat. Finally, the USDA proposal is merely a proposal and might never become a rule, could well be weakened further, or might not be implemented for many years.
Californians want meaningful protections from USDA meat recalls NOW. We urge you to sign SB 611 into law. You recently stated in your opposition letter to the National Food Uniformity bill in Congress (HR 4167):

California has a long and proud tradition of setting landmark health and environmental standards that become the basis of similar actions in other states and at the federal level. The federal government should not interfere in state authority to protect consumers and the environment.

By DHS signing the secrecy pact with USDA to keep from the public the names of retailers that receive and sell recalled meat, California has allowed its state authority to protect consumers to be interfered with by a federal agency. California must not keep secrets about such potentially fatal meat and poultry contaminants as mad cow disease, E. coli, listeria, and salmonella. Please make SB 611 the law in California.
Thank you for your careful consideration.
Elisa Odabashian
Senior Policy Analyst
Consumers Union