(March 7) When it comes to food safety and recalls and which federal agency should be in charge, proponents for centralized control and open disclosure use a ham and cheese sandwich to demonstrate that the present system makes no sense.

Open-faced, single-sliced sandwiches come under the purview of the Department of Agriculture. Add a piece of lettuce and the Food and Drug Administration steps in. Should there be a recall of the meat, the Food Safety and Inspection Service wants to post the names of retailers that sold it on its Web site. The FDA, however, considers the retailer’s information confidential.

As for the meat, this may change July 1 in California when former San Francisco Sen. Jackie Speier’s bill becomes law. It would permit the Department of Health Services to tell the public which retailer sold the product. The provision excludes restaurants.

Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he believes the oft-amended bill will eventually include fresh produce.

For now, though, when it comes to the lettuce on that sandwich, retailers are safe from FDA disclosure, and they have also been excluded from the California Leafy Greens Products Handler Marketing Agreement.

“That’s a bad idea,” said Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, a Silver Springs, Md.-based nonprofit health organization.

She said agencies should be telling the public as much as possible.

“This is a good example why we need a free-standing food safety agency, which would only have the public’s health and safety as its mission,” she said.

Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel for the American Meat Institute, Washington D.C., said disclosing retailer locations would not enhance the effectiveness of recalls.

“By posting the information on the (FSIS) Web site, it could result in people using products they should be getting rid of,” Dopp said.

He said if an agency decided to post recall information consumers would have to check each day to determine if their store is on the list.

“They may decide that if their store is not on the list today they can eat the product,” he said. “They will have a false sense of security.”

Eric Schwartz, vice chairman of the advisory board for leafy greens and president of Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc., Monterey, said he doubts that revealing retailers during the E. coli outbreak linked to spinach would have helped the situation.

“When the FDA advised people not to eat spinach, nobody was selling a single bag,” he said.

Schwartz said retailers are in a position of control, whether they’re members of the agreement or not.

“All they have to do is require their suppliers to sign on to the agreement,” he said.