When the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, CA, revealed on Wednesday that much of the beef cited in the massive Rancho Feeding Corp. beef recall ended up being served at Jack in the Box and other fast-food restaurants, there was a secondary revelation for many in the food industry: The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not include restaurants on its lists of retailers selling recalled meat.
Since 2008, USDA has published lists of retailers carrying recalled products alongside its recall notices, but it does not identify any restaurants that might have served recalled meat directly to customers. That tidbit was not news to everyone, but it raised enough attention to cause some within the food-safety community to question why it was the case.
Dr. Richard Raymond was the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety when the agency began publishing the retail consignee list during meat recalls. He told Food Safety News on Wednesday that the original regulation from USDA would have included restaurants on the list, but they were excluded once the final version came back from the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The rules themselves state that USDA does not believe that publicly identifying restaurants that served recalled meat would better protect consumers dining out, since the recall would not occur until after they had dined. Intermediary meat distributors, however, are required by law to hold any recalled meat once the recall has been announced, and therefore cannot ship it to restaurants. Retailers operate the same way.
The rules go on to lay it out more explicitly: “Restaurants are not retail consignees.”
“Honestly, I had assumed for the last several years that restaurants and grocery stores were being treated the same during a recall,” said Food safety attorney Bill Marler. “I simply do not see FSIS’s rationale for identifying grocery stores with tainted product, but letting restaurants escape the same scrutiny. To me the consumer has an absolute right to know what it government knows, and here, that is where they may have consumed recalled meat.” added Marler. (Marler’s Seattle-based law firm, Marler Clark, underwrites Food Safety News.)
Barbara Kowalcyk, Ph.D., CEO of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, said that the current practice of excluding restaurants from the list was “less than ideal” because the vast majority of foodborne illness outbreaks with a known source are associated with food eaten outside the home.
Kowalcyk cited statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which showed that, of all the foodborne illness outbreaks from 1998-2008 with known sources, 68 percent were connected to restaurants or delis, while only 9 percent were from meals cooked in private homes and 7 percent were from catered events.
“One of the benefits [of identifying restaurants in recalls] is that people may remember they recently ate at a certain restaurant, but they might not remember every type of food they ate,” Kowalcyk said.
Christopher Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, told Food Safety News that publication of the retailer consignee list was intended solely for grocery retailers because of the potential for consumers to still be in possession of grocery products at the time of the recall.
“Consumers may still have something from a grocery store sitting in a refrigerator versus anything served at a restaurant being eaten right away,” Waldrop said.
He added that having restaurants on the list could be a benefit for reporting outbreaks if a patron was sickened and then saw a restaurant connected to a recalled product, but the original intention of the retail consignee list was to prevent illness.
“The list is more useful for getting products off the store shelves and out of homes,” he said.
Given the high prevalence of dining out in the U.S., however, Kowalcyk said that notifying consumers of restaurants that served recalled food makes more sense than not.
“If the concern is that people have recalled food at home, it’s just as likely the food will be mishandled at restaurants,” she said.© Food Safety News