Meat recalls up, and government wants to know why

Monday, April 8, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration angered food companies when it decided after an outbreak of deadly listeria to start publicizing every recall of meat and poultry products. Consumer groups hoped the policy would spur companies to cut down on contamination incidents.

Two years later, there is little evidence the policy has reduced recalls or increased the amount of recalled meat that is returned to processors. The Bush administration now wants outside consultants to review the recall procedures.

"The question is are recalls effectively communicated ... to consumers, grocery stores, anyone who might happen to have the product," said Margaret Glavin, administrator of the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Until 2000, the Agriculture Department did not issue press releases for recalled products that were sold just to restaurants or for meat that was repackaged by grocery stores, on the theory that consumers had no way of identifying the meat. Nor did the department publicize recalls for products that did not involve a health risk.

The number of recalls went from 62 in 1999 to 95 in 2001. There have already been 29 so far this year.

Recovery rate down

In 2000, the latest year for which figures are available, companies recovered less than 17 percent of the meat they recalled. That compared with 23 percent in 1999, 28 percent in 1998 and 40 percent in 1997, according to an analysis of department records by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

Meat is recalled for a variety of reasons, including possible contamination with dangerous bacteria; the omission from the label of ingredients that can cause allergic reactions; or incorrect statements of meat or water content.

The Agriculture Department does not know why the recovery rate has been dropping or why there are more recalls, although officials think the increase is due to more intensive testing, Glavin said.

Hopes to finish this year

The department expects to choose a consulting firm this month to do the study and hopes it will be finished later this year.

The Clinton administration's decision to issue press releases on all recalls followed a deadly listeria outbreak in late 1998 that was traced to a hot dog and deli meats plant in Michigan. Critics had claimed that the government was too slow in announcing recalls of tainted products.

Food companies say it is unnecessary to publicize many recalls and that consumers may hear of so many that they start ignoring them.

Federal officials "need to evaluate what they do and how they notify the public, and make a better distinction between food safety and nonfood safety issues," said Alice Johnson, vice president for food safety programs of the National Food Processors Association.

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