Friday, March 10, 2006

USDA to name retailers during food safety recalls

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced on Monday that it is proposing to publicize the names of food retailers whose food products are the subject of a food safety recall. Until now, the agency has published the name of the manufacturer that produced a contaminated food product, but not the name of the groceries where the product was sold.

"We believe that publishing a list of retail establishments that have received products subject to recall will help consumers more easily determine if they purchased recalled product," said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Richard Raymond.

The proposed rule could improve the effectiveness of the market economy in protecting consumers from foodborne illness and other hazards. Because retailers could suffer economic hardship from food recalls, even if the food safety issue is the fault of a food manufacturer, the retailers may press manufacturers to guarantee the safety of the food. Under this rule, the market incentive to provide a safe product may be strengthened, easing the current strains on government regulatory efforts to ensure safe food.

The text of the proposed rule notes that food manufacturers generally do not want competitors to know their list of clients. Under the proposed system, the manufacturer's retailers would "generally" be identified using USDA records, rather than the manufacturer's own files. The list of retailers would be published on a USDA website. Especially with the qualification "generally," this proposal is likely to make manufacturers nervous and yet further increase their incentive to provide a safe product.

Food manufacturers may oppose this proposed rule. Their voice will be strongly heard in the process of formal comments on the proposal. If you would like your own view to be heard, submit comments on the proposed rule to the FSIS email address: fsis.regulationscomments @ In the email, refer clearly to the agency name (Food Safety Inspection Service) and to "docket number 04-006P." Comments will be posted to an FSIS website.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer group, hailed USDA's proposed rule as an important advance. CSPI had campaigned for just such a rule in 2004, and had also asked that USDA be given authority to order food safety recalls. Currently, USDA can request voluntary compliance with a recall, and to date no companies have ever refused such a request.