WASHINGTON – Lawmakers demanded Thursday that the Agriculture Department disclose which retailers sold meat that was recently recalled in the nation's largest beef recall.
Richard Raymond, the department's undersecretary for food safety, told angry Democrats on the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee that the information is proprietary and can't be made public.
Some 10,000 consignees — from producers to retail establishments — received the potentially tainted meat from the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., Raymond said. But he said he couldn't reveal which ones, and most of the meat had already been eaten because the recall stretched back two years.
Westland/Hallmark recalled 143 million pounds of beef last month after the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video of cattle being abused and cows that couldn't walk being prodded to slaughter.
Democratic lawmakers said it was unacceptable for the public not to know where the meat went. So-called "downer" cattle pose a higher risk of E. coli, salmonella and other illnesses.
"This is not proprietary information. This is information that is directly engaged in the health and safety of the American people, which we have a responsibility, along with you, to protect," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.
Hinchey demanded a list of the retailers by next week. Raymond said he'd consult with Agriculture Department attorneys on whether he could comply.
The Bush administration has opposed publicizing retailers' names in meat recalls, but the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service proposed a rule change two years ago that would allow such disclosure.
The rule still hasn't been finalized. Raymond said it was in final review at the Agriculture Department before being sent to the White House budget office.
"It is in the final stages of clearance," he said.
Democrats contended the Bush administration was delaying the rule under pressure from industry.
California, unique among states, has its own law allowing for disclosure of the names of the retailers where recalled beef was available. The law took effect just last July. A 120-page list of retailers is posted on the California Department of Public Health Web site at http://dhs.ca.gov/ and is still being updated, California officials said.
The rules on public disclosure are different for meat that went into federal programs, which more than 50 million pounds of the Westland/Hallmark meat did, mostly school lunches. Individual state distributing agencies have their own approaches for disclosing information about the recalled meat.
Contacts for state distributing agencies are at http://www.fns.usda.gov/fdd/contacts/sdacontacts.htm.
To date, of the 50.3 million pounds of Westland/Hallmark product in the federal food and nutrition programs, 31 million pounds have been consumed, 13.9 million pounds are on hold, and 6.5 million pounds are being traced, according to USDA.