PLEASANTON, Calif. -- Safeway defended its Canadian-sourced beef products, and disputed the notion that they may be unsafe after the chain was singled out by a California consumer group on a beef-labeling issue.
"The safety of our products is our top priority. We are appalled at the use of irresponsible scare tactics to advance political agendas," said Brian Dowling, Safeway's vice president of public affairs, in a prepared statement. The company declined further comment.
Dowling referred to the Consumer Federation of California's public announcement that "Safeway has been selling unlabeled beef from Canada, which has not banned a feeding practice linked to mad cow disease."
While certain practices of calf-feeding the consumer group said could spread bovine spongiform encephalopathy may be allowed in Canada, Dowling pointed out that Safeway's supply of beef is safe. He added that keeping the confidence of its customers is a top priority.
"We buy our beef products from reputable suppliers who adhere to the highest standards for safety. USDA allows for the importation of certain meat products from Canada. While we purchase only a small quantity of that product, all of it meets strict federal requirements for food safety, wholesomeness and quality. Further, we fully comply with all state and federal labeling laws."
CFC's spotlighting of Safeway and its sale of Canadian beef is apparently related to the group's efforts to get state legislation passed that would require beef sold in California to carry country-of-origin labeling.
The group was successful in getting its proposed legislation introduced in the state assembly last week and, according to a CFC source, "it has passed the first hurdle, and has been sent on to the assembly appropriations committee."
Regardless of what happens to the legislation -- which is not limited to Canadian imports -- the organization believes that in view of consumer concerns about BSE, beef from Canada should be labeled as such "so consumers can be informed of what they are purchasing," said CFC spokesman Richard Holober.
Holober said Canadian beef is probably being sold elsewhere in California, but justified pointing to Safeway in particular because of the amount of product it brings in.
"We know of a couple of other isolated cases in the Central Valley, but Safeway seems to be routinely bringing in Canadian beef on a wholesale basis. Then, of course, when it gets cut and packaged for retail sale, it's not labeled. We're not aware of others [who are bringing in Canadian beef and not labeling it with its country of origin], but we're trying our best to find out who else is out there," Holober told SN.
The CFC announcement last month about Safeway said the beef in question at the chain's stores includes several cuts of steak sold under Safeway's Ranchers Reserve proprietary label.
If the legislation the consumer group is sponsoring makes it into law, it will make California the fourth state to have passed a law requiring beef to carry country-of-origin labeling.
Wyoming, North Dakota and Louisiana have such requirements in place, Holober said. National COOL regulations pertaining to beef have been put on hold for two years, though some lawmakers have re-introduced a bill to repeal that delay.
COOL legislation has been a hot topic over the last year, and beef got particular attention when incidences of BSE involving Canadian cattle were discovered. A case of BSE was found in Canada last May, prompting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shut this country's borders to Canadian beef and live cattle imports. The live cattle embargo is still in effect, but the USDA began to allow certain beef products in under permit early last fall. Last month, it added more beef products to its list.
Then, last December, a cow in Washington state tested positive for BSE, the first time the disease had been found in the United States, and its origins were traced to Canada.
Following that incidence, a call by U.S. Senator Tom Daschle for immediate country-of-origin labeling of meat was met with virtually no support from retailers and the food industry. Retailers do not feel that on-pack labels listing country of origin will adequately address the food-safety aspects of the mad cow disease problem, they said.
All retailers contacted by SN at the time said the entire food industry is concerned with safety, but labeling wouldn't help investigators determine what lot, herd or farm infected animals come from.
"We think that a more prudent and less costly way of achieving the same [food-safety] goal would be to increase the monitoring of these foodstuffs as they come into the country, and to perhaps create some kind of certification system when things are imported," said one retailer. [See "BSE's Canadian Roots Re-Heat COOL Debate," SN Jan. 12, 2004].