At least 10,000 food distributors sold recalled meat from the shuttered Hallmark slaughterhouse in Chino, CA including ConAgra, General Foods, Nestle and H.J. Heinz and it could still be on store shelves.
But Richard Raymond, USDA undersecretary for food safety, told an incredulous House Appropriation's agriculture panel this week the information is "proprietary" and would not be released.
Naming names could drive customers away and just "confuse" people say trade groups like the American Meat Institute, Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association.
The Bush Administration also opposes publicizing retailers' names in meat recalls.
But an appeal to protectionism was not what the panel wanted to hear.
"This is a very, very critically important issue," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-New York) demanding a list of implicated distributors by next week. "If we have stores that are selling bad products, we should know about it."
This is not the first time shield laws have protected industry profits at the price of public health during mad cow scares.
Shield laws protected the identities of Texas and Alabama ranches that produced mad cows in 2004 and 2006 and the identities of 11 restaurants in nine California counties that served meat from a confirmed mad cow in late 2003.
That's why former state Sen. Jackie Speier backed a California law in 2006 which compelled distributors of recalled food products to disclose where those products went.
This week a 120 page list of over 400 restaurants and food services that bought Hallmark/Westland meat including Costco, Jack in the Box and Taco Bell appears on the California Department of Public Health web site. Officials say the list is growing.
The Department of Agriculture and Big Food did not have an easy time in the Senate last week either.
Even as Gary Rodkin, CEO of ConAgra Foods apologized for last year's pot pie recall in a House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee hearing--"I personally will ensure that we will continuously challenge and improve our food safety programs, and make certain that food safety is the centerpiece of our corporate culture,"--the news broke that ConAgra was implicated in this year's recall.
And in Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearings last week, chairman Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin) wanted to know why, with five inspectors assigned to the Hallmark slaughterhouse, the videotaped abuse that led to the recall had to be uncovered by a charity.
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"Why don't you have a system that uncovers this inhumane treatment of animals?" Senator Kohl asked Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer who was making his first appearance on Capitol Hill since assuming the post days before the meat scandal broke.
In January, an undercover video showing the mistreatment of "downer" cows www.hsus.org shot at a Chino, CA slaughterhouse which supplied the National School Lunch Program led to the biggest meat recall in US history.
Senators and consumer and animal welfare groups are calling for a complete downer ban. Downers are usually dairy cows barely able to stand due to calcium depletion from being milked intensively and are worth as little as $84 per head.
But Schafer and the American Meat Institute think such a ban is "unfair to owners."
Many downers are just fine when they arrive at the slaughterhouse, they say, but somehow get "injured" after inspection. They want to keep USDA rules that currently allow slaughterhouse officials to call a veterinarian back if a cow falls down after passing inspection so it can still be slaughtered.
But Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said at the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearings such a rule is "the fox guarding the hen house."
Especially because Rafael Sanchez Herrera, 34, of Chino, one of two Hallmark workers charged in the abuse, says he was taught the videotaped techniques to get downed cows to stand up and pass inspection by former pen manager, Daniel Ugarte Navarro, 49, of Pomona, who is also charged in the case but free on bail.
Sanchez Herrera says he asked his former supervisor, "How can you treat a poor animal that way?" and Ugarte Navarro replied that, "I didn't know anything and I was nobody."
The press is also skeptical of the "previously healthy downer" loophole.
"You're saying that those [downers] never would have passed inspection anyway," Miriam Falco of CNN Medical News said to Ken Peterson, assistant administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service which enforces the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, at a press briefing in February. "But we see video of them going into the facility. So at what point does your inspection pick up on this?"
Cynics might answer: when a charity like the Humane Society of the United States catches it.
Martha Rosenberg is a cartoonist for the Evanston Roundtable in Evanston, Illinois.