Lawmakers demand USDA list beef recall stores

WASHINGTON Thu Mar 6, 2008 3:20pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers on Thursday demanded the U.S. Agriculture Department release by next week a list of stores which received the 143 million lbs of beef recalled by a California company last month, but administration officials said that may not be possible.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Agency first proposed two years ago that retail establishments which received recalled products be identified publicly, to give consumers important information more quickly.

USDA had planned to begin listing retailers later this year, but lawmakers and consumer groups are now pushing the department to do it sooner following the February 17 recall by Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co of 143 million lbs of meat, mostly beef.

"If we can't get the information from you by the first of next week then we are going to start pressing you very hard in whatever way we can," Maurice Hinchey, a New York Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, said during a budget hearing.

"If we have stores that are selling bad product then we need to know about it," he added.

The meat from the recall, the largest in U.S. history, was delivered to just under 10,000 suppliers who later distributed the product to restaurants, retailers and other establishments, according to USDA. Most of the meat probably already has been consumed, and no illnesses have been reported.

Currently, it is difficult for consumers who have purchased tainted products to locate a store because USDA considers recall distribution lists to be confidential and leaves it up to retailers to decide whether to disclose details.

Agriculture Undersecretary Richard Raymond, who oversees USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, has long been a supporter of publicly releasing lists of establishments impacted by recalls.

But he told lawmakers USDA does not have the authority to release lists, including one of retail outlets associated with the Hallmark/Westland recall.

"I'm not sure I can at this point and time because it's considered proprietary," said Raymond. Still, he vowed to talk to USDA lawyers as early as this afternoon to see what can be done.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, chided Raymond and FSIS for taking two years to work on a measure that still has not been implemented.

"That is really unacceptable," said DeLauro, who has suggested USDA issue an emergency rule listing the retailers and school districts that received products tied to the Hallmark/Westland recall.

In a letter sent last month to the USDA, eight consumer groups said listing retailers would help create a more efficient recall process and decrease the consumer risk of becoming ill or dying from eating the products.

Under the current recall process, the department contacts food distributors to ensure proper notification is taking place and that products are being removed from store shelves and disposed of properly.

USDA also releases the company recalling the product, the reason for the recall, a description of the item and whether any illnesses have been reported to the public.

(Editing by Jim Marshall)

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