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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Bush administration will oppose any legislation that would make meat companies tell consumers which stores received meat that was recalled because of possible contamination, an Agriculture Department official said Wednesday.
Elsa Murano, the department's undersecretary for food safety, told a House subcommittee that consumers wouldn't benefit because companies send meat to places other than grocery stores and restaurants.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said she was considering legislation in the wake of food-poisoning outbreaks that killed nine people last year. She said a law requiring processors to tell consumers which supermarkets sold the meat would protect the public.
"This is not about a company's bottom line," DeLauro said. "This is about the public's safety."
The department asks companies for lists of retailers and wholesalers when checking which ones may have sold the meat before it was recalled. However, the agency cannot release the lists to the public because they are considered proprietary trade information.
Murano said the department has the authority to demand the lists. If a processor refuses to hand over a distribution list to the department, the department could take it to court, she said, adding that no company has never done that.
Murano said companies wouldn't be as cooperative if they were forced to share information. If too much time was spent getting the processors to release lists, then more people would be at risk of getting sick, she said.
Consumer advocates argued that consumers need to know if stores sold recalled meat.
"If even one person took action based on having the information and therefore avoided getting sick, it would be worth having that information available," said Carol Tucker Foreman, head of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute.
"I think that USDA has decided once again to protect its political contributors in the meat industry, rather than to protect public health," she said.
The meat industry would oppose any move to make them tell the public who their trading partners are, said Janet Riley, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute.
"The most important thing for the consumer to know is all of the establishment codes and the product code dates," Riley said. "That's what tells them whether they've got the product or not."
When announcing a recall, the department releases the names of the meats being pulled and the days they were processed.
Also on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers who have been critical of how the department handles recalls wrote to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, calling for an investigation into ConAgra Beef.
The company's Greeley, Colo., plant was linked to 42 illnesses last summer, prompting the recall of 19 million pounds of ground beef after inspectors found harmful E. coli bacteria in some hamburger meat. ConAgra sold the plant to meatpacker Swift & Co. in September.
"We urge USDA to fully investigate the company's conduct and consider seeking criminal penalties against the company and any officials who acted recklessly," the lawmakers wrote.
The letter was signed by DeLauro, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Rep. Henry Waxman of California and Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Sherrod Brown, both of Ohio.
Alisa Harrison, a spokeswoman for Veneman, declined to comment, saying officials were still reviewing the letter.
Chris Kricher, a spokesman for ConAgra, declined to comment on a possible investigation.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)