WASHINGTON Consumers may be told if their local grocery store got tainted meat during a recall under a new policy announced Friday by the Agriculture Department.
The planned rule change comes in the wake of the nation's biggest-ever beef recall 143 million pounds from a slaughterhouse in Southern California.
Under the new rule, which is expected to be published next week and take effect 30 days later, retailers' names will be posted on the Agriculture Department Web site during so-called "Class I" meat and poultry recalls those deemed to pose a definite public health risk.
Currently when there is a meat recall, the Agriculture Department makes public the name of the establishment recalling the meat, a description of the recalled product, and any identifying brand names or product codes. But the public is not told where it is being sold.
That would change under the new rule. But because it is limited to Class I recalls, the Southern California recall would not actually have been affected. It was classified as "Class II" because authorities determined there was minimal health risk.
Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer said disclosing retailers' names during Class I recalls will allow the public to know when their health is at risk without creating unnecessary confusion or fear.
"When you have a public health risk, people need to know," Schafer said.
"When it isn't a public health risk, we don't want the public to be confused that this is something that can harm you. ... We don't want to unnecessarily scare the public."
The decision drew mixed reactions. The meat industry, which has opposed any retailer disclosure, contended that the change may hurt consumers more than it helps them, because information may be incomplete or out-of-date.
"We want consumers to get the most accurate information, and we think this could really confuse them," said Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute.
Some consumer groups and lawmakers praised the new rule but said it didn't go far enough, while others criticized it outright for being limited to Class I recalls.
"If we are serious about protecting consumers from unsafe foods, it is critical that this information be provided for all recalls," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who has pushed for years for publication of retailers' names during recalls, something the Bush administration initially opposed altogether.
The Consumer Federation of America called the announcement "a welcome change that will help protect consumers."
At the same time, the group questioned the decision to leave out Class II recalls like the one in February by the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif. That recall occurred after a Humane Society investigator filmed workers abusing "downer" cows unable to stand to force them to slaughter.
Downer cows pose increased risk for mad cow disease, E. coli and other infections, partly because they typically wallow in feces.
Agriculture officials have contended there was minimal health risk from the situation, while acknowledging they could not rule it out altogether. No illnesses have been reported.
"It is odd that Secretary Schafer would refer specifically to this landmark recall and then announce a rule that would not provide consumers information about where product was sold in a recall of this type," said Chris Waldrop, director of the food policy institute of the Consumer Federation.
The Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service proposed the new retailer rule more than two years ago. In its original form it would have applied to all recalls, not just Class I. The rule lingered in draft form until the Westland/Hallmark recall brought renewed calls from lawmakers to finalize it.
California is alone in having its own law requiring disclosure of retailer names during Class I and Class II recalls. The California Department of Public Health has a 154-page list posted on its Web site of retailers that had received meat recalled from the Westland/Hallmark plant, from major grocery stores to tiny taco restaurants.