The planned rule change comes in the wake of the nation's biggest-ever beef recall — 143 million pounds from a slaughterhouse in Southern California.
Under the new rule, which is expected to be published in the Federal Register next week and take effect 30 days later, retailers' names will be posted on the Agriculture Department Web site during so-called "Class I" meat and poultry recalls — those deemed to pose a definite public health risk.
That's something that now doesn't happen at all, except in California, which has its own law requiring such disclosure.
But because the disclosure will be limited to Class I recalls, the Southern California recall would not actually have been affected. It was classified as "Class II" after authorities determined there was minimal health risk.
Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer said disclosing retailers' names during Class I recalls will allow the public to know when their health is at risk without creating unnecessary confusion or fear.
"When you have a public health risk, people need to know," Schafer said.
"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. ... We don't want to unnecessarily scare the public."
The decision drew mixed reactions. Some consumer groups praised it but said it didn't go far enough, while some Democratic lawmakers criticized it outright.
"I am very disappointed that this new rule would apply only to Class I recalls," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who has pushed for years for publication of retailers' names during recalls.
"If we are serious about protecting consumers from unsafe foods, it is critical that this information be provided for all recalls."
The February recall by the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, Calif., occurred after a Humane Society investigator filmed workers abusing so-called "downer" cows to force them to slaughter. Downer cows pose increased risk for mad cow disease, E. coli and other infections, partly because they typically wallow in feces.
Agriculture officials have contended there was minimal health risk from the situation, while acknowledging they could not rule it out altogether. No illnesses have been reported.
The Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service proposed the new retailer rule more than two years ago. In its original form it would have applied to all recalls, not just Class I. But the rule was opposed by the food industry, which considers retail information proprietary and says it doesn't necessarily help consumers anyway because it can be outdated, incomplete or confusing.
The rule lingered in draft form until the Westland/Hallmark recall brought renewed calls from lawmakers to finalize it.