Take Action on Meat Secrecy
August 31, 2004
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
State Capitol Building
Sacramento, CA 95814
Dear Governor Schwarzenegger:
Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports urges you to sign SB 1585 (Speier and Machado) into law. This important public safety measure would ensure that the public is properly notified when retailers in the state have received contaminated meat that is being recalled by the USDA.
SB 1585 requires all beef and poultry product suppliers, distributors and processors who sell meat subject to a USDA recall in California to immediately identify to the state the names and locations of retailers that received these contaminated products. The bill authorizes DHS to provide this information to local health officials, and requires local health officials to alert the public.
In 2002, 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. Only 11 states have signed these agreements with the USDA. 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 signed by DHS 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. It should also be noted that the agreement prohibits public notification in any circumstance—no matter the degree, nature, or seriousness of the outbreak.
Earlier this year, news accounts indicated that California was one of seven states that received a shipment of 38,000 pounds of beef products subject to a USDA recall because it included meat and bones from a cow that tested positive for mad cow disease. However, 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 (please see attachment, “State Hit a Wall On Beef Recall,” The Sacramento Bee, May 10, 2004.).
Because of the slowness of the USDA’s mad cow testing program, it took 14 days from the time the infected cow was slaughtered for the USDA to issue a voluntary recall, and three weeks from the time the infected cow was slaughtered for local health officers in affected California counties to be notified that product from the recalled lot had been distributed to retail outlets in their jurisdictions. By the time local officials in California contacted restaurants and grocery stores regarding the recall, much of the meat and bones had already been sold to consumers. In a number of cases, retailers were either not informed by the USDA at all about the recall or were visited by USDA officials ten or more days after the recall was issued.
Even after retailers were notified by the USDA, consumers had to depend on retailers voluntarily notifying them that the meat they sold may have been contaminated. Many retailers did not choose to come forth voluntarily, and nothing in the law required them to do so. Consumers were left uninformed by USDA, California DHS, and by many retailers about whether the meat they’d purchased or consumed was part of the recalled lot. SB 1585 would prevent this from happening in the future by ensuring that California consumers will be notified of retail outlets in their community that receive recalled beef or poultry.
Just this month, 497,000 pounds of frozen ground beef was recalled by the USDA over concerns that it may be contaminated with E. coli. The USDA’s announcement said only that the recalled beef was sent to “retail stores nationwide.” California consumers have no way of knowing whether any of that beef has shown up in stores or restaurants in California, because state health officers here are prohibited from revealing which retailers are selling the meat.
The USDA should not coerce states into abiding by secrecy agreements about contaminated beef and poultry, and California officials should not withhold information about these hazards from consumers. This legislation ensures that the state receives the information it needs in order to respond to such meat recalls, and that consumers are properly alerted so that they can take steps to protect themselves and their families from contaminated food. We urge you to sign SB 1585 into law.
Senior Policy Analyst
CC: Senators Speier and Machado