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USDA List Would Pinpoint Locations of Recalled Meat
The prospect of these names being made public led the National Meat Association , which represents meat processors and packers, to tell the agency in an open meeting in April that it should abandon the proposal.
"The publication of this information would be extremely advantageous to a firm's competitors. A competitor would have the ability to identify specific retail locations . . . and then offer their products as an immediate substitute . . .," said Brett Schwemer , an attorney representing the NMA.
"We're opposed to it, and so is most every other trade association that has anything to do with food," said Mark Dopp , senior vice president and general counsel for the American Meat Institute , which represents meat and poultry processors.
The AMI and other groups told the agency the new policy might give consumers a false sense of security if their stores are not on the list when they check it.
The National Grocers Association said the proposal is vague and will create another level of bureaucracy. Thomas Wenning , senior vice president and general counsel of the NGA, said the system works now because retailers pull the products off the shelves and out of the meat counters as soon as they learn there's a problem.
The Food Marketing Institute noted that there are 16,000 distributors of meat and poultry that might need to be checked by the FSIS in compiling a list to make public, depending on the size of the recall.
Dopp also said the proposal may be of "questionable legality" because the FSIS now considers the names of retail distributors to be exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
Over the past few years, the USDA has made agreements with some 14 states under which it shares the names. But the states are not allowed to disclose that information. Consumer groups said that arrangement amounts to a gag order.
Raymond didn't have access to the information as a state health official because Nebraska didn't sign such an agreement. He said he thinks state and local health officials would use information on the Web site to announce recalls and to speed returns to stores.
FSIS spokesman Steven Cohen said the agency's Web-based list will be developed so it is not subject to those restrictions.
California recently passed legislation that would require producers, distributors and suppliers to notify the state immediately when there is a recall. Local officials would then decide whether the information should be made public. The bill is on the governor's desk, though a similar bill was vetoed in 2004.
Elisa Odabashian , senior policy analyst with Consumers Union , the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, said a recent poll showed 80 percent of the Californians surveyed said the state should publish the names of retailers and restaurants where recalled meat has been shipped and sold.
Raymond said he understands that the industry does not want to change the way it does business, but he hopes it will volunteer the information.
"They have to decide that public health is a non-competitive issue," he said.
Out for Comment
Is anybody home? After 10 years as the deputy of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, as well as off-and-on acting administrator, Donald R. Arbuckle is leaving the government June 2 and heading to the University of Texas at Dallas to teach public policy. His departure follows that of John Graham, former head of the office.