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Poll: Majority of Californians oppose secrecy of hazardous meat recalls

May 4, 2006

Bill Targeting State’s Secrecy Agreement With USDA That Kept Consumers In the Dark About Mad Cow-Infected Beef Sent to Governor

(SACRAMENTO, CA) – In 2002, California’s Department of Health Services (DHS) signed a secrecy agreement with USDA, agreeing not to release the names of the stores and restaurants where tainted, USDA-recalled beef and poultry have been shipped and sold. Federal and California state agencies maintain that secrecy is necessary in order to protect the proprietary interests of the beef and poultry industries. But eighty percent of Californians believe that the public should be told the names of retail stores and restaurants that receive and sell potentially contaminated, USDA-recalled beef and poultry, according to a recent Field Research Corporation survey.
Greater than eight in ten Californians (84%) favor mandatory recalls when unacceptable levels of contaminants are found in beef and poultry products, compared to just 11% who favor the current system of voluntary company recalls. “Most Californians want meat producers to be required to come forward when they suspect contamination of their products. And most Californians don’t want to be left in the dark about which stores and restaurants are selling tainted meat,” said Elisa Odabashian, Senior Policy Analyst with Consumers Union’s West Coast Office.
SB 611 (Speier), passed by the state Legislature last year but not yet sent to the Governor’s desk, would require the identity of retailers that receive USDA-recalled beef or poultry to be made public, so that consumers could better protect themselves from food-borne illnesses. The California Senate is expected to give final approval and send the bill next week to Governor Schwarzenegger for his signature. A similar bill was vetoed by the governor last legislative session.
In 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 the first U.S. cow that tested positive for mad cow disease (the country’s third confirmed case of mad cow disease was discovered on March 10, 2006 in Alabama). But California consumers had no way of knowing which grocery stores and restaurants received the products because the state had agreed with the USDA to keep that information secret. The state’s secrecy agreement covers all recalls of unsafe beef and poultry—not just those that involve mad cow disease. The names of retailers selling recalled beef and poultry products tainted with other hazards, such as E. coli and listeria, are also kept secret from the public under the current agreement.
“The Field survey shows what we’ve suspected all along: that Californians want to know whether the meat and poultry they are buying could be hazardous to their health. Common sense dictates that consumers should have a right to this information,” Odabashian said. “The state’s secrecy agreement with the USDA protects the beef and poultry industry while putting California consumers at risk.”
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recently put forth a proposal to inform the public, via publication of a list on the Internet, about the names and locations of stores where voluntarily recalled meat or poultry have been sold. The proposal does not include making public the names of restaurants that have received recalled meat and poultry products. In 2004, mad cow-tainted meat products were sold in California restaurants. It is unclear how quickly the USDA would post the names and addresses of retail stores after a recall, and USDA could postpone implementation of this proposal indefinitely, if it is approved at all.
“The Field survey shows that a large majority of Californians, across the geographic, socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and political spectrum, want to know which retail stores and restaurants receive shipments of recalled beef or poultry products,” said Odabashian. “Californians want to know that the government agencies charged with protecting them from food-borne illnesses are not keeping secrets that could kill them or their family members.”
Schwarzenegger has 12 days upon receipt of the bill to sign or veto.

For more information, contact Elisa Odabashian – 415-572-0036 or 415-431-6747
The survey results are based on questions added to a statewide survey of California adults on behalf of Consumers Union by Field Research Corporation. The survey was conducted by means of telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,000 California adults in English and Spanish on February 12-16, 2006.
Sampling was conducted by means of random digit dialing, which selects telephone exchanges within all area codes serving California in proportion to population. From each exchange, a random sample of telephone numbers was created by adding random digits to the telephone exchange selected, permitting access to both listed and unlisted telephones. After the completion of interviewing, the overall sample of adults interviewed was weighted slightly to estimates of the state’s adult population. According to statistical theory, results from the overall adult sample would have a sampling error of +/- 3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Results from subgroups would have somewhat larger sampling error ranges. There are other possible sources of error in any survey in addition to sampling variability. Different results could occur because of differences in question wording, sampling, sequencing or through omissions or errors in interviewing or data processing. Extensive efforts were made to minimize potential errors.
Consumers Union is a nonprofit membership organization chartered in 1936 to provide consumers with information, education and counsel about goods, services, health, and personal finance. Consumers Union’s income is solely derived from the sale of Consumer Reports and ConsumerReports.org, its other publications and from noncommercial contributions, grants and fees. In addition to reports on Consumers Union’s own product testing, Consumer Reports and ConsumerReports.org, with approximately 6.5 million combined paid circulations, regularly carry articles on health, product safety, marketplace economics and legislative, judicial and regulatory actions that affect consumer welfare. Consumers Union’s publications carry no advertising and receive not commercial support.