July 11, 2008 -- Despite rampant concerns about food safety, people shopping for groceries or eating out often don't know if the food they are buying is safe.
But on Friday, the United States Department of Agriculture said it will soon give shoppers more information in the most serious recall cases. Today, the USDA announced it will tell consumers the names of stores where recalled meat and poultry products were, or possibly still are, being sold. The goal is to make it easier for shoppers to determine whether their store may be selling meat that's been recalled for potentially deadly contamination, allowing them to double check and make sure they're not buying any of it.
For the first time, the new rule allows the government to publicly release the names of the stores that have sold recalled meat and poultry posing the most severe risks to peoples' health. USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service will post a list of stores on its Web site.
The changes come on the heels of several recalls that have left people nationwide wondering whether they were buying dinner from a store that had received tainted meat. On July 3, Nebraska Beef Ltd of Omaha recalled more than five million pounds of beef after an E. coli outbreak that first emerged at Kroger grocery stores in Michigan and Ohio. This winter, a February recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a California slaughterhouse was the nation's largest beef recall ever.
"We need this rule to reinstall the confidence of the American public that we are in control here," said Richard Raymond, head of the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service.
Still, the changes announced today would not have applied to the February recall, which was categorized as a slightly lesser risk to public health. It was left out of the agency's most serious recall "Class 1" category to which the new rule applies.
The narrower rule left advocacy group Food & Water Watch saying today that the announcement should have gone further.
While Food & Water Watch said it was "encouraged" by the new rule, it immediately argued that the new guidelines should be extended to all recalled products.
"We urge the administration to extend this new rule to cover all meat and poultry recalls, regardless of why the product is being recalled, so consumers have a better chance of heeding warnings before it is too late," said Food & Water Watch's executive director Wenonah Hauter in a statement today. "If a problem is serious enough to spark a recall, it is serious enough to give consumers all the information they need to avoid potentially dangerous products."
The USDA defended its decision to apply the rule only to the most serious recalls.
"We don't want to unnecessarily scare the public," said Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, asserting that releasing information during recalls that have less serious health risks might confuse consumers.
The new rule concerning recalled meat will be formally published next week and will take effect in 30 days.
The changes concerning food safety will not, however, mean anything for the ongoing investigation into what caused more than 1,000 people in the U.S. to become ill from salmonella. While the USDA regulates meat and poultry, it's the Food and Drug Administration that regulates the nation's produce.
Today, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, also applauded the Agriculture Department's announcement.
"Now when there is a recall, consumers will know if their supermarket carried the tainted meat," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union. "Consumers will know to check what they might have in the refrigerator and get rid of it if it is part of a recall. This is a change that can give consumers peace of mind, and in certain cases avoid serious illness and even save lives."
The Consumers Union also said the rule should be extended to Class II recalls, and added that the lists of places receiving tainted meat and poultry should also include schools and nursing homes.
ABC News' Brian Hartman contributed to this report.