Consumers Still At Risk, Despite Recall
Americans Still Wondering: “Where’s the Beef?”
February 20, 2008
WASHINGTON—Millions of consumers could unknowingly dine on recalled beef because meat sold by Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. went to grocery stores or was processed by other companies not named in the recall, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture refuses to release the names of retail establishments that sell recalled meat to the public because of fears that companies won’t share information with USDA under its voluntary recall system.
“When a recall is undertaken, big buyers are told that meat they purchased is part of the recall, but those buyers aren’t required to notify their customers,” said CSPI staff attorney Sarah Klein. “Consumers hearing of the recall may not realize that the ground beef in their freezer is the recalled product just sold with a different label.”
USDA requested that Hallmark/Westland voluntarily recall affected beef following an investigation triggered by a hidden-camera video shot by the Humane Society of the United States. The video showed plant workers tormenting downer cows to get them to stand and walk in order to pass USDA’s inspection procedures. The 143,000,000-pound Hallmark/Westland recall notice issued by USDA states that the recall covers bulk packages of beef shipped to wholesalers that are not available for direct purchase by consumers. This creates confusion by suggesting the recalled products did not reach consumers. In fact, the bulk packages being recalled may have ended up on retail shelves under different brand names. So consumers may still be buying beef from sick cows.
USDA has a policy of not identifying a recalling firm’s immediate purchasers. That means that wholesalers and retailers who repackaged the meat for consumers are not identified in the recall notice. Nor will labels for such products bear the “336” establishment number highlighted in USDA’s press release. The agency considers the names of repackagers to be confidential and not subject to disclosure, even under the Freedom of Information Act. As a result, unless the recall covers a brand-name product, consumers may not know they have purchased recalled meat.
“While consumers know where and when they bought beef, this information rarely links up with the information in USDA’s press releases,” Klein said. “It is time to do away with the myth that recalls are a commercial event between big buyers. Recalled meat and poultry potentially affect consumers’ health and their willingness to buy those products. Commercial information should not take precedence over the consumer’s right to know where the products were sold.”
In 2003, CSPI initiated a campaign to force USDA to release the names of retailers selling recalled meat. CSPI’s “Where’s the Beef” campaign started in 2004 after a mad cow scare. For recalls occurring in 2004, CSPI filed Freedom of Information Act requests to identify the stores where the recalled meat was sold, but USDA always denied these requests. Recently, Food Safety and Inspection Service Undersecretary Richard Raymond announced plans to change the agency’s policy on identifying retail purchasers, but the proposed rule is languishing between USDA and the Office of Management and Budget.
In January, national retailer Wegman’s Food Markets Inc. telephoned consumers who may have purchased previously recalled products, using information gleaned from consumers’ frequent-shopper discount cards. Wegman’s is the only large retailer known to be proactively alerting consumers about previously purchased recalled products.
"Kudos to Wegman's for alerting consumers in past recalls," said Klein. "We hope they set an example for grocery stores and other retailers. Consumers with beef in their freezers will be happy to be alerted if products were or were not part of this recall."