040220 Beef-Recall Secrecy Draws CA Senators' Ire

February 22, 2004

Sacramento (Sacramento Bee) - California Senate Democrats, outraged at an agreement that kept secret the details of a recent mad cow beef recall, have scheduled a Tuesday hearing that could be the first step in terminating the deal.

Three state Senate committees have asked Department of Health officials to explain why they signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal Department of Agriculture that prevents public access to details of beef recalls.

The memorandum has been a lightning rod for controversy since the USDA issued a Dec. 23 recall of meat potentially tainted by mad cow disease.

In exchange for receiving USDA details on recalled meat, such as where it was sent, California and 20 other states agreed 19 months ago not to make the information public unless the companies involved agreed.

"I don't want to sound like an alarmist," said Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, "but there could be more (cases of mad cow) out there. So we need legislation that will ensure the public's confidence in the food supply. I think that will be the result of these hearings."

Speier said a package of bills could come from the hearing, including everything from forbidding recall secrecy to establishing a state agency to handle food recalls -- currently the purview of the federal government.

Dr. Stanley Prusiner, the UC San Francisco Nobel Prize winner who explained what causes mad cow, is scheduled to speak at the 9:30 a.m. Tuesday hearing at the Capitol.

Prusiner, who also heads a Bay Area firm that manufactures a rapid mad cow test that the USDA is considering for use, will likely argue that USDA testing is inadequate and that the malady is more prevalent than the government has acknowledged.

Consumer groups, such as Consumers Union and Safe Tables Our Priority, also are scheduled to appear at the hearing run by the Government Oversight, Agriculture and Water and Health and Human Services committees.

No USDA representative will attend the hearing because department officials said it conflicts with another mad cow hearing in Washington. Agriculture officials will submit written testimony in response to questions, said USDA spokesman Ed Loyd.

Federal officials say that because meat recalls are voluntary they must keep proprietary information confidential, including sales and distribution records.

The same rules apply to beef recalls involving more immediate threats to health, such as E. coli contamination.

"It's preposterous to think that government can negotiate an agreement that guarantees that kind of information will be kept secret," said Speier, chairwoman of the Government Oversight Committee. "We're supposed to be transparent. Agreements like this violate what government is supposed to be all about."

A spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association said that restaurants would suffer if such information became public. Even if a restaurant acted quickly to remove recalled product, publicly naming it would undoubtedly hurt its reputation.

Speier said if other cases of mad cow or another beef-borne illness surface, recall secrecy could backfire by casting a pall over the entire industry.


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