Ground round run-around
WinCo, feds, state knew of Chico beef recall while county didn’t
On Dec. 15, 2003, a sick Washington state dairy cow was slaughtered, butchered and ground into hamburger. Its meat was mixed with that of as many as 19 other cows to create more than five tons of lean ground beef. That meat was then sent to warehouses for distribution and stored in crates alongside beef from other manufacturers.
At least 30 of those crates, a total of about 1,800 pounds, were purchased for resale by Boise, Idaho-based WinCo foods. Out of 42 WinCo stores in five Western states, it is likely that some of that beef was sold in Chico.
How much? Nobody knows. Was any of it eaten? Nobody knows. Will anybody get sick from it? The odds are against it, but again, nobody really knows.
Such is the complex and convoluted chain of events that brings meat to our tables and, lately, stokes the fear of those who believe they may have been exposed to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease.
Here in Chico, the beef in question was taken off the shelves the same day the USDA alerted stores to the possibility of contamination. But due to an obscure agreement between federal and state public health authorities, county public health departments were kept in the dark about the recall for more than a week.
Carmen Ochoa, spokeswoman for Butte County Public Health, said there was little word of the recall in the local press because, although the state knew of the recall, county health departments were not told of it until Jan. 2, 11 days after the recall went into effect.
“It is a process by which there is a disconnect with the USDA and retailers not sharing information with local public health departments,” Ochoa said. The “disconnect” is apparently the result of an agreement the state made with the USDA about 18 months ago, in which state officials were barred from publicizing recall information because it might give away trade secrets held by meat retailers and distributors.
The agreement, a memorandum of understanding between the USDA and the California Department of Health Services, allows the state to check up on retailers that are participating in a voluntary recall but bars it from publicizing those efforts. Health Services spokesman Jim Waddell admitted that the reason recall details are kept secret is to avoid giving away “proprietary information"—in this case, the distribution chain of WinCo’s ground beef—to either the public or to a company’s competitors.
“It’s just a subtlety of the law,” Waddell said. “The USDA regards that information as propriety—basically a trade secret.”
But what some meat consumers may find even more shocking is that, prior to the agreement, the USDA didn’t share any recall information with the state. As such, Waddell said, the new agreement is actually a huge improvement over the old system.
“Before the agreement, the USDA couldn’t tell us where the product had gone. If it came into California, they didn’t share that with us. We had no recourse prior to the MOU other to stand back and trust that they would handle it.”
During the recent recall, state Health Services employees assisted the federal effort by double-checking the USDA’s list of stores and distributors to make sure each one was in compliance. Waddell also said that the holiday season had contributed to the delays in getting information to local health officials.
“Had it been in the middle of the summer, it might have been different.” He said. “All of the agencies involved have learned a lot, and we are always trying to do a better job.”
So how worried should Chicoans be about mad cow disease? Most experts say not very. One spokesman for the USDA’s food safety and inspection service said the health risk from ground beef was “virtually zero.” In addition, there was only about a two-day window—between Dec. 21 and Dec. 23—when Chico consumers could have purchased meat from the infected batch. Michael Read, a spokesman for WinCo, said the company pulled its entire stock of lean ground beef from all of its stores as soon as it discovered that the meat might have been contaminated.
“The USDA recall was a voluntary, Class II recall, which means that there is minimal risk to the public health,” Read said. “It doesn’t mean the product was even tainted.”
The company put out a notice through the Associated Press, put up signs in its stores notifying customers of the recall and advised customers to bring back any ground beef purchased during those two days. By the 24th, Read said, another beef supplier was located and the shelves were re-stocked.