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News Transcript

Press Conference on New Policy in Food Safety Recalls Release No. 0185.08

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USDA Officials Make Announcement on the Availability of Retail Lists during Recalls

July 11, 2008

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SEC. ED SCHAFER: Thank you all for joining us. Good afternoon. I apologize for being late. We were out of the building, and on the way back, as always when you're running late, the people in front of you are driving the speed limit. But I am glad to be back, and I look forward to your questions and comments about this issue in a few minutes.

When I took office as Secretary, I certainly expected to be working on the Farm Bill and issues surrounding free trade and renewable fuels. But expectations are one thing, and events are another. Events, quite properly, set the agenda for issues that we focus on in government. As events have unfolded during the six months that I've been in office and making sure that our food safety system is as strong as it can be -- has been a very high priority for me and for USDA.

On my second day of the job here at USDA I was able to review a video tape - actually, a CD - of serious incidences of inhumane handling of animals at the Hallmark Westland meat packing plant in California. Actually we received the CD the first day I was in office, but it was coded so we couldn't get to it. I finally viewed it the second day, and that CD showed some very disturbing things. And it prompted us to immediately launch an investigation of what was going on at that facility.

As you know, it led us to initiate the largest meat recall in United States history, 143 million pounds of product produced by Hallmark Westland over the preceding two years.

Based on that experience, I determined that we would aggressively address our food safety system to see what improvements could be made. I also assured Congress and the American people back in February that we are going to treat this issue with the utmost urgency and do everything in our power to appropriately address this problem and to work to strengthen consumer confidence in our food supply.

We have already started taking steps to make a strong system even better. In May we proposed tightening our ban on nonambulatory or downer cattle entering the food supply. Our proposal to tighten our ban on nonambulatory cattle entering the food supply still has to go through a comment period and an approval process before it can be implemented. Since that will take some time, last month I called on the beef industry to voluntarily abide by the ban while the new rule is being developed. And to date we believe that industry has responded very favorably to that voluntary ban.

Today we are moving ahead with a new rule on recalls of meat and poultry products. In recalls that present a class I level of serious health risk, this new rule will allow us to release the names and locations of retail establishments where these products are sold. With that information, consumers will be better able to identify and return recalled products that may already have made their way to freezers and cupboards and pantries in consumers' homes.

Consumers have a right to know about health risks in food products, and this rule will give them more access to this information. We know from experience that one of the most valuable tools we have in fighting threats to public health is the prompt dissemination of useful information. And here at USDA the voice of experience in public health issues is our under secretary of Food Safety, Dr. Richard Raymond. Dick has been a strong advocate on this issue and spearheaded our effort to put this new rule in place, and I want to thank him for all the hard work on this issue over the last few years.

We proposed this rule back in March of 2006 and held a public meeting and collected comments on the rule. After reviewing and analyzing them, we submitted the draft final rule to the Office of Management and Budget in April of this year. We expect it will be published in the Federal Register next week and will take effect 30 days from that publishing date.

Since Washington is not the best place to learn about our food safety system and how it actually operates, I've also been visiting livestock and poultry processing plants around the country to see how things work in the real world. I was in Texas last month visiting beef and poultry plants; and earlier this week we were in Nebraska touring beef, pork and poultry plants there. I've been inviting members of the media along on these trips, and some have been brave enough to come along with us.

I can tell you that I have been impressed with what I've seen in our overall meat inspection system and the safeguards that are in place in these facilities. They include innovative technologies like ultraviolet light to detect possible e-coli presence on carcasses, and pasteurization and irradiation processes, all to kill all kinds of harmful bacteria. One interesting innovation we saw was a water pressure system that actually breaks down the cell walls of bacteria, assuring that meat in the package is bacteria-free.

But as our techniques evolved, so do bacteria and other pathogens we are trying to suppress. So inevitably we are going to be seeing ups and downs, and product recalls are going to occur. We believe the rule change we are announcing today will help us handle them more efficiently while reducing risks to public health. We're going to continue to take a critical look at our current food safety system, and when we identify other areas where improvements can be made we will not hesitate to act.

We want our consumers at home and abroad to know that we will continue to uphold the highest standards to protect the United States food supply.

And now Dr. Raymond will make some comments for us, and then we'll be happy to answer any questions that you all may have.

Dr. Raymond?

DR. RICHARD RAYMOND: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. As we all know, when there is a recall it means somewhere along the line something has failed. And so the quicker we can do an outbreak investigation, the quicker we can do a recall; and the more complete we can make the recall the better job we are doing to protect the American public and our foreign trade partners.

Most of you know I was a state health officer for Nebraska for six and a half years before I came to the USDA in this position, and one of the frustrating things I had as a state health officer was when the USDA would announce a recall. Just imagine that you are the public health official trying to improve the health of the citizens of your state and you receive a notice that 500,000 pounds of ground beef has been recalled that was distributed in Nebraska. Now what are you supposed to tell the public? Don't eat ground beef? Cook your ground beef to 160 degrees, don't cross-contaminate, whatever? You can't tell them if it was in their freezers, their refrigerators or if they consumed it. You could only say it was sold in Nebraska. That was no help to me as a state health officer.

So when I had the opportunity to come to the USDA, and one of my first projects was to find out why that problem existed and what steps it would take to change it. I was told rulemaking is the only possibility, so we began rulemaking. As the Secretary said, we introduced this rule in March of 2006.

We need this rule to reinstill the confidence of the American public that we are in control. When we can announce the retail stores that this product was sold at, that educates the consumer; and an educated consumer is an empowered consumer. And it gives them the ability to make decisions that affect theirs and their family's health. And that's what they want when there are times of crisis.

I don't think a recall is a crisis, but if it's your child that's sick it certainly is a crisis. We need the American public to be empowered to make those decisions.

I would use the most recent recall as an example. We had a couple recalls involved last week. Kroger's announced a recall and said, "Our ground beef that we produced may be contaminated with e-coli; it has caused illnesses in a certain number of patients in these states and it was sold at these stores. And if you bought ground beef from Kroger's stores with a "use by" date that's such and such, destroy it or bring it back."

People knew exactly what stores it was.

When we did the Nebraska beef recall, we said, "5 million pounds of ground beef is being recalled; it's been distributed in these multiple states." And that's it. That's all we could tell the public at the time -- in direct contrast because of the rules we operate under. And that's why these rules need to be changed.

Our current system is good, but as with most things it can stand improvement. Not too many years ago, USDA started putting pictures of the product that was being recalled on the FSIS webpage. And I would submit to you and to industry and to others that that was a good move.

But the most vulnerable public to getting food borne illnesses and dying are the very elderly and the very young, and they are not going to the FSIS webpage on a regular basis. My mother is 85 years old; she doesn't own a computer and she's not going to use a computer. She will go to her death saying, I never looked at a webpage. And there are many elderly like that, and they are the ones that we need to protect.

And then the very young whose parents are very busy trying to make an income, trying to save money for college -- they are not going to run to our webpage to see what the picture looks like.

So what we need to do is to get the information to the public that can be understood. On our recent trip to Nebraska, I pointed out to the Secretary and the Communications Office that when there are ground beef recalls announced in Nebraska, it's on the third page of the business section because in Nebraska recalling ground beef isn't much of a public health issue as it is a business issue, being a beef state. So not all states take our announcements and put them where people will see them.

But when we announced that there's a recall in Nebraska and it's sold at these stores, those local health officers and those state health officers out there can get on the 6:00 news. This now becomes a news item that will be on the front page above the fold of the evening newspaper or the morning newspaper because it is now very local. It is now very useful information that the media will want to give to the public. And those local and state health officers who have been frustrated like I was frustrated will want to get that message out there to the consumers so they do destroy the product.

It's a tremendously simple move, it's a tremendously common sense move, but it will also be a tremendously effective move I firmly believe.

And with that, I think we'll open it up to your questions and answers.

SEC. SCHAFER: We have here at the podium Dr. Raymond as well. And Phil, why don't you join us? Phil Derfler is the assistant administrator for Food Safety Inspection Service, for the technical expertise to have here. Okay.

Any questions? Yes.

REPORTER: Christopher Dearing with Reuters. Dr. Raymond or Secretary Schafer, can you explain exactly how this is going to work? Like, okay, we have a recall; are you going to put out the facts you've been putting out now, and then are you going to update the list once you find the retailers? Because it's going to take awhile for them to actually figure out if they have the product on the shelves or if they were one of the companies involved. So are you going to update the lists as you get more companies, or how is this all going to work?

DR. RAYMONDR. RAYMOND: You are right, Christopher. First of all, we will continue to do the recalls exactly as we do them now. When we have information, it will be made public. Pictures will go on the webpage, and we'll announce the states it's been sold in. As soon as we have a listing of the retail stores - and we have to get that listing because part of our effectiveness checks involves our employees going into these stores to make sure the product has been pulled off the shelves, make sure the retail or wholesale establishment has been notified by the company.

So we have to learn the names of the stores to do our effectiveness checks. As we learn the names of the stores to, we will add to our recall notices. We will send directly to those states involved. If on the first notice we listed retail stores in two states and two days later we found out there was a third state involved, that state health officer will be notified directly by us so they can do whatever they need to do to get it to the media that we've added it to the list of stores. It will not be a static list; it is a list that will change change.

And we have been, as one of the criticisms have that have been made, I feel information is information. Right now we don't give the consumer any information about the retail store, and if we have half the stores on the second day, that's more knowledge than they currently get, and we will just make it a daily update.

REPORTER: Do you have an estimate of how long it might take to get retail stores?

DR. RAYMOND: I'm sorry. You were supposed to identify yourself, sir. We anticipate from the time we begin the recall process it will take two to three days to have a very accurate, very good listing of the stores. But we do know that there may be some others that will be identified because that store may have sold down the stream to another store.

SEC. SCHAFER: Who's next? Go ahead.

REPORTER: Bill Tomson with Dow Jones. This is a practical question. Is it up to the stores to report to you, or do you have to go there to gather this information where it is? Who's responsible for collecting the names? And is there any type of penalty if stores don't give their name?

And if you'll forgive me, a second question. A lot of things that you were saying, Dr. Raymond, about this being a matter of logic and so forth, it takes me back a few years at an appropriations hearing when it seemed to be Congress lawmakers saying what you just said. And the Bush Administration - I think it was Dr. Morono (ph) at the time - saying, "Oh, it's not necessary." When did the administration change its mind on this, and why did it take so long?

SEC. SCHAFER: I'll answer the second part if you answer the first part. Go ahead, you can take the first part.

DR. RAYMOND: I want to do the second part.

[Laughter]

SEC. SCHAFER: Okay. Well, you do the second one too.

DR. RAYMOND: The first part. It's part of our recall process is to work with the store, the establishment that either processed or slaughtered the meat. And when we trace back to the source, we've always had full cooperation with industry. Our recalls, as you well know, are voluntary. We've never had industry refuse to do a recall. We don't need mandatory recalls for the food safety inspection system. They worked very cooperatively with us. They will give us a list of distributors, wholesalers or retailers that they have sold their product to.

Our next step is to go to the wholesalers, distributors or retail stores and say, "Where did you distribute this to?" It doesn't happen overnight. It takes a little while depending on how big the product is, how many stores are involved. We find out the names of the stores; we go to the stores to make certain that they have been notified to recall the product. It's a chain of events.

The retail stores don't notify us of anything. We go to them and ask them, "Were you notified, and where was this product out on your shelves?" We make sure it's been pulled from the shelves. That's called the effectiveness check. We do a lot better job with effectiveness checks than we did seven or eight years ago, which is one of the things, Bill, that has allowed us to take a look now at having this retail identification.

Because a few years ago our effectiveness checks were not nearly as effective as they are now, and it was more difficult to get the names of the stores. We're just better prepared to implement this rule at this time.

SEC. SCHAFER: That's kind of getting into the second part. Do you want to go ahead?

DR. RAYMOND: Part of that's the second part, and the other part is, I came here July 18, 2005, with a mission. And some of that mission was to educate people why I felt there was a need for retail store identification. That job was done. We now will have a rule posted next week.

REPORTER: (off-mike) changed their minds here?

DR. RAYMOND: Perhaps.

REPORTER: The effectiveness things are more corrected.

DR. RAYMOND: The effectiveness things. We were getting more effective long before I got here. They came together.

SEC. SCHAFER: Yes. Go ahead.

REPORTER: Erica Warner with AP. As I understand this will apply only to class I recalls. You started out by talking about the Westland Hallmark recall, which if I'm correct is a class II recall. So just explain why it's not appropriate to do this also in the case of class II recalls, which I think is what you had initially actually proposed.

SEC. SCHAFER: I started out talking about the downer rule, which was a class II recall because we also have taken action on that to assure the public to change the issue that we won't allow downers anymore in the system. I feel it's important to look at a class I situation. As Dr. Raymond and I had a chance to have some conversation about this starting I think before I was even confirmed, we talked about this rule and the need for it. It becomes I think real clear that when you have a public health risk, people need to know.

As we look at other efforts, class II recalls, other types of recalls, when it isn't a public health risk we don't want the public to be confused that this is something that can harm you, something that is bad, somebody has a rule violation or a label problem. You know, it isn't a health risk. So we don't want to unnecessarily scare the public, we don't want to have them think, 'Oh my goodness, this is a problem, if I get some of this in my pantry I'm going to have a sick child.'

You know, we want to assure the consumers that if they see a class I recall and they see their retail store there, they know this is a problem and that they should be aware.

REPORTER: And could you just, for the benefit of myself if not others, explain how you determine when something is a class I recall versus a class II recall?

SEC. SCHAFER: Sure. Do you want to?

DR. RAYMOND: Yes. Absolutely. We have a Recall Committee that is convened whenever there's a possibility of a recall. That committee makes that decision. The definition of a class II recall is that there is a remote probability that it may cause health - if you consume this product. The key words there are "remote probability." We cannot say that it is mathematically zero, so therefore we label it class II.

Class III is, there is no possibility. Class III as an example, poultry may on the label may say, "May contain up to 12 percent water." If we find in testing that it's 16 percent water, that's mislabeling, and there would be a recall. But there's absolute zero risk.

The Hallmark example was a class II because we felt that mathematically it was not zero but it was as close to zero as you can get. There was no harm would come from eating that product. It was a rule violation which prompted the recall, and so that was a class II.

Class I means there was a good likelihood you will become ill or maybe even suffer death if you consume this product. It's usually fairly straightforward.

SEC. SCHAFER: Any other questions?

REPORTER: I actually have another question. But just in the process of getting the names from I guess the beef companies of where they sold to, etcetera, it is voluntary that they give you that information? And what if they don't? Then what do you do?

DR. RAYMOND: Phil has been doing this a long longer than I, to answer that.

PHIL: They voluntarily give it to us, but we have statutory authority to get it if anyone didn't. But generally there's total cooperation, and they give us the information.

REPORTER: You don't expect that will change once this new rule is in place?

PHIL: We have no reason to be concerned about that at this point.

REPORTER: But you could subpoena them?

PHIL: If necessary we would consult with our lawyers, yes.

SEC. SCHAFER: Bill?

REPORTER: One quick follow-up. Bill Tomson with Dow Jones. The prohibition on downer cattle was first enacted, I'm trying to remember, just make sure I'm right - the prohibition on downer cattle was first implemented by Secretary Veneman in the wake of the first discovery of BSE in the United States. And it was implemented to assure the public that BSE is not getting into our food supply, which is a human health risk.

SEC. SCHAFER: The downer cow was one of a strong overlapping issue.

REPORTER: But breaking that rule is not a health risk.

SEC. SCHAFER: Bill, you know, as the United States, USDA and others responded to the threat of BSE on a limited basis in the United States, a strong overlapping system of food safety was put in place: the feed ban, ruminant-to-ruminant feed, the removal of the SRMs or the special regulated materials.

The downer issue is one. And as you know in the Hallmark plant, the downer issue here was a secondary inspection from a cow that had already been inspected by a vet, and it had been passed for processing.

So with all of those overlapping safety measures in place, we felt this is not a health risk; there's not a risk of BSE. There are some organizations of people out there that tried to combine those and tried to make it seem like it was some kind of a public health threat. If it would have been a public health threat, we would have done a class I recall. This is clearly a class II recall situation because of the variety of safeguards that are in place. So we could assure the American public it was not a health risk.

REPORTER: Thanks.

SEC. SCHAFER: More, more. Oh, they're wakening up. Go ahead.

REPORTER: I'm Ben Goad from the Press Enterprise. I just want to be sure that the Westland Hallmark would have had, would not have been impacted by this rule at all, correct?

SEC. SCHAFER: They would have been impacted by the new downer rule. It would not be impacted, or the retailers wouldn't be impacted by announcing the retailers where this meat went.

REPORTER: In terms of the downer rule, can you give any estimate on when that will be published?

SEC. SCHAFER: I recall September, but I don't know.

PHIL: We're working on it right now, and we hope to have a draft out in September or very early in the fall. We're working on it though very hard right now.

SEC. SCHAFER: When I heard September, I asked that it be put on the fast track system; so hopefully we'll get it by September or earlier, fast as we can get it.

REPORTER: -- public comments?

SEC. SCHAFER: For publishing.

REPORTER: For publishing.

SEC. SCHAFER: Correct. Erica?

REPORTER: Thank you. I know there's been opposition from industry to disclosing retailers, so I'm wondering if that played any part in your decision to limit this rule to only class I recalls.

SEC. SCHAFER: It didn't for me. When Dr. Raymond and I talked about instituting this, what made sense as we talked about it is 'public health risk,' letting people know where they may have a problem with the food they purchased in the past or might purchase currently. So that was clearly the issue here. I haven't been around long enough to know about the pressure from the industry or the retailers or whatever. I think we made the decision clearly on a public safety issue and that made the most sense and would be the least confusing to the consumer.

Yes?

REPORTER: Duncan McKenna with NBC. I was just wondering, you say information is good no matter what, but at the same time how will this affect industry in the sense that if the manufacturers or wholesalers are published in the future, families might look back and say, 'You know, Kroger had this at one point, but the black market's still there, so are you going to keep on going to Kroger or are we going to change retailers?' How is that going to affect industry?

DR. RAYMOND: That's a very good question and one that we have worked hard to resolve. And I want to give you a couple of examples that helps sometimes when I explain this to people.

If you buy a new car and six months later you get a notice from that manufacturer that says they've detected that some of the cars have faulty brakes, 'Bring it back in and we'll fix your brakes for free,' you'd probably feel happy that company takes your safety as number one, doesn't worry about their reputation. They notified you to bring your car in and fix the brakes. And you probably will go back to that company for your next car.

If they send you a letter ever month saying there's a bolt in the driver's seat, there's a problem with the fuel tank may explode, pretty quick you're probably going to go to a different company, and you should when you buy your next car.

If you go to a retail outlet store to buy your groceries and every month they are issuing a notice to you that there's been a recall, you may want to question where they're buying their product from. Because that's not going to happen; we don't do that many recalls.

I would think the public would be glad that the retail stores took their health first. And there are some examples. There are some very strongly proactive public health retail grocery stores out there that when there is a recall that involves ground beef or other products sold in their store, they do mass calling of their customers. With those little bar cards, they could tell you, 'We have 75,000 customers identified that bought ground beef in these five days,' and they are mass notifying those people. And those people are responding to them in a positive fashion saying, Thank you so much. They have not lost customer loyalty whatsoever.

SEC. SCHAFER: And if you're moved to buy a new car, make sure it's from an American company.

[Laughter]

Any other questions or comments?

Thank you.