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Meat recall: Expired, repackaged and sold with new dates: New China food scandal

If you check out the July 21, 2014 USA news article, "McDonald's, Yum can't ignore food scare reaction in US," you'll see the details of how and why Chinese officials shut down a U.S.-owned food processor after local media reported that it had been selling expired meat to McDonald's, KFC and other restaurant chains. You also can check out a related story,"Related story: Wal-Mart China donkey meat scandal: You're really eating fox." The scandal has now spread to Japan. See, "China scare snares Burger King, Papa John's." Burger King and Papa John's joined the list of companies caught up in a Chinese food scandal that has spread to Japan. The scandal also has hit Starbucks in China. See, "China meat scandal hits Burger King, Starbucks." Or check out "China's latest food scandal the first to ensnare the likes of McDonald's, Starbucks."

Expired meat repackaged and sold with new dates: New China food scandal.
Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

The news focused on Shanghai Husi Food Company that's owned by Illinois-based OSI Group, since according to news reports, it supplied local franchises of international companies such as McDonald's, Starbucks, KFC and Pizza Hut. On Tuesday, July 22, 2014, the news spread overseas as McDonald's Japan confirmed in a statement that some of its chicken nuggets came from Shanghai Husi.

China's latest food scandal broke after Dragon TV reported that Shanghai Husi Food Co., owned by OSI Group of Aurora, Illinois, repackaged old beef and chicken with new expiration dates. The station said the meat was sold to McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants. But first, the whole story has to be confirmed. McDonald's Corp. and Yum Brands Inc., which owns KFC and Pizza Hut, issued statements on July 21, 2014 apologizing to customers and said they immediately stopped using meat from the supplier. Both companies said they were conducting their own investigations. See, "UPDATE 3-Yum, McDonald's apologize as new China food scandal hits."

At least you are informed that the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration closed the supplier's plant on July 20, 2014 after a TV report showed workers picking up meat that fell on the floor, as well as mixing meat beyond its expiration date with fresh meat. You also can check out the Barron's article, "McDonald's Burned By New China Meat Scandal."

Yum has more than 6,300 restaurants in China, its No. 1 market, and plans to open 700 more restaurants there this year. OSI has about 60 manufacturing facilities worldwide and has been supplying McDonald's in China since 1992 and Yum since 2008, according to its website. Husi Food also supplies Burger King, Papa John's Pizza and Starbucks. So the problem is widespread in China. Could it happen in the USA? Maybe not so fast, depending on who you ask and who's watching the watchers. Or see the highly cited Reuters news article, "Yum, McDonald's apologize as new China food scandal hits." According to the Reuters news article, the companies said they immediately stopped using the supplier, Shanghai Husi Food Co Ltd, a unit of Aurora, Illinois-based OSI Group, and had switched to alternates. They added that the factory served restaurants in the Shanghai area. What's next?

Can expired meat be sold widely in the USA?

There's a big problem for consumers if expired meat is repackaged with new expiration dates. The same holds true for any type of food, not only meat. You may wish to check out a news release from March 28, 2006, "Federal law should require ID of stores that sold recalled food, study suggests." The information can give you a handle on what happens when and if someone discovers expired food is being sold in the USA. It may be less likely to happen in the USA, but anything is possible until it's discovered. The question is who's watching closely?

A proposed rule suggested in 2006 to make meat and poultry recalls more effective is a step in the right direction, says an Ohio State University economist, according to the March 28, 2006 news release, "Federal law should require ID of stores that sold recalled food, study suggests." But Neal Hooker believes even more could be done to protect consumers from food-borne illness from tainted meat.

Hooker, an assistant professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics, revealed in a 2004 study that only about half of recalled meat and poultry is recovered

To increase those numbers, Hooker suggests in a recently published follow-up paper that the government should publicize the names and locations of grocery stores where the recalled meat has been sold. That's exactly what the Food Safety and Inspection Service is suggesting with a proposed new rule, announced March 6. The proposal is online at the government's regulation website. (Search for documents in the Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS). Comments about the proposal were accepted back then in 2006, through May 8, 2006. The FSIS also planned to hold a public meeting on the issue during the comment period back in 2006.

Currently, recalled meat and poultry products are publicized on an FSIS Web site and through press releases in the states where the meat was distributed. Notifications are sent to public health agencies, wholesalers and retailers. However, retail locations where the recalled products have been sold are not listed for public view.

"Right now, no federal agency has the authority to reveal where recalled meat products have been sold, much less tell retailers they need to take steps to inform consumers about a recall," Hooker says, according to that 2006 news release. "I do think this proposed rule is a good idea, but it could have gone further." A big step would have been to outline steps grocery stores must take in order to inform consumers when a recall occurs.

The amount of meat and poultry products recalled in the United States has grown from about 6 million pounds in 1988 to about 36 million pounds in 2003, Hooker explains in the news release. His study, conducted with graduate student Wenjing Shang, was published in the August-November 2005 issue of the Journal of Public Affairs. Hooker and Shang also presented ideas on "Using Consumer Information to Improve Recalls" at the Battelle Policy Day at Ohio State 's John Glenn Institute in February 2006.

Two time periods are critical in a recall's effectiveness, Hooker said: the number of days after production until a problem is discovered, and the duration of the recall

In their study, Hooker and Shang examined 501 recalls between January 1998 and May 2005. They found that, on average, a recall began 47 days after production and lasted an average of 135 days after that. However, the cases varied widely, with discovery of the problem ranging between 1 and 480 days and the duration of a recall ranging from 6 to 616 days.

"These time periods are much too long, considering that some of these products have a shelf life of only about nine days," Hooker says, according to the news release. "This says to me that maybe retailers need to be more active in recalls. Right now, they're not required to do anything to alert consumers."

"The goal should be simply this: fewer people getting sick," Hooker explains, according to the news release. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 5,000 people die nationally every year from food-borne illness. Increasing consumers' awareness about recalls of contaminated food products could have significant public health impacts, Hooker says, according to the news release, and grocery stores that go out of their way to warn consumers about potentially harmful products could find customers appreciate the information and become even more loyal customers. However, Hooker said, this theory remains untested and deserves further research. The news release states that as of 2006, Hooker is continuing his work on this topic, focusing on smaller, non-chain retailers in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia to determine the type of technology they have available to track customer purchases compared with larger grocery chains.

How loyalty cards could help stores reach customers who bought recalled food

Two days ago I received an email from the supermarket where I bought organic nectarines informing me there is a voluntary recall on those nectarines due to the possibility of listeria in them. Unfortunately I ate the several nectarines I bought two weeks ago and a week ago. No symptoms, though, at least none noticed out of the ordinary. I had eaten the nectarines the same day I bought them. The email came to me on July 20, 2014. The specific nectarines with the possible listeria being recalled were sold between July 9 and July 19, 2014. And I had been buying them every few days during that time period and eating all of them. But at least the email came to me as a loyalty card holder, even if the information came more than a week after I ate the nectarines being voluntarily recalled.

The email asked me to return the nectarines for a refund or bring in my receipt. Unfortunately, I ate all the fruit being recalled and the receipt was shredded and put in the paper recycle can and picked up in the past few days. On the other hand the eight dollars for four nectarines I thought was rather expensive. The moral of this story is that because of my loyalty card, the supermarket knew I purchased nectarines on the dates involved in the voluntary recall. It would have been great if the email came on the same day I purchased the produce, but in such cases the store may not have known, or if it had known and sent the email days before, I would not have thought to check my email from the supermarket thinking it may have been a coupon or other message not related to a food recall, since I've never bought recalled food before, and have been buying organic fruit and vegetables at that supermarket for many years.

How can loyalty cards help stores reach customers who bought recalled food? Back in 2006, the news release, "Federal law should require ID of stores that sold recalled food, study suggests," notes that if federal law is changed to require the identification of stores that have sold food that has been recalled, the question becomes how these stores can best notify their customers.

Some retailers voluntarily put fliers up warning consumers who may have purchased a recalled meat or poultry item and encouraging them to return the product if it hasn't already been consumed. Hooker suggests other steps could be taken. For example, retailers could use information collected from customer loyalty cards to notify consumers who have purchased recalled products. They could do so by e-mail or simply by alerting them the next time customers use their cards. For customers who do not have such cards, retailers could collect information from other means, such as food stamp cards or even credit cards.

"There are problems with any of these approaches," Hooker admits, according to that 2006 news release. When consumers sign up for customer loyalty cards, they are usually promised that their information will not be used for any reason other than marketing purposes. Using data from food-stamp card purchases calls to mind "Big Brother" scenarios. Concerns about customer privacy must be dealt with before such measures are taken, he says.

Hooker realizes retailers may be concerned about getting a bad reputation by admitting they sold products that faced a recall. However, he says they should also consider the potential customer relations benefits by doing whatever they can to protect the health of their customers by informing them about those recalls. In the end, he believes, the benefits would outweigh any potential costs retailers would face. The point is that wanting privacy when I purchase food is great, but if the food is recalled, it was great to be emailed a notice to bring back the food or the receipt to get a refund. On the other hand, the food had been eaten the day I bought it, and the receipt long trashed.

That's a good reminder to keep receipts just in case something is recalled. You can never tell with food packaged that looks clean. Those organic nectarines looked so inviting, so clean, so well placed in the container, and each labeled with a sticker. Interestingly, the sticker number of each nectarine was listed in the letter from the supermarket. But, alas, who reads the sticker on a piece of fruit when the fruit is washed and eaten as soon as it's brought home? Looking on the bright side, there were no symptoms after eating the nectarines.