March 13, 2013

Ground beef safety rules months away despite need

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON – New federal rules that lawmakers sought after a salmonella outbreak in Maine in 2011 are still likely months from completion, a health inspection official said Wednesday.

click image to enlarge

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D- Maine, center, questions Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety, and Alfred Almanza, Administrator, Food Safety And Inspection Service, right, during a House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing in Washington on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

The outbreak, linked to ground beef sold by Hannaford Supermarkets, helped expose problems with the way stores handle and track the various sources of meat they grind.

The incident, which sickened about 20 people in Maine and six other states, added urgency to U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, already in the works, to require stores to record the sources of all the meat they grind, to help investigators identify suppliers of any tainted meat.

USDA officials said they hoped to complete their work on the proposed rule by the end of 2012.

The USDA has known for 15 years that better record-keeping is needed, to help investigators trace the source of contaminated meat and prevent more illnesses.

On Wednesday, a USDA official told a congressional panel that the rules are still being developed.

"It's always hard to give a firm time line, but this is a priority policy for us," said Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety in the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "We hope to have a proposal ready to head over to the Office of Management and Budget in the next few months."

The Office of Management and Budget will have 90 days to review the potential effects of the rule, though it could seek an extension.

Hagen's answer came in response to questions from U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, about when the rules will be ready.

"It's been 15 months since that last outbreak, and back in my home state people are saying, 'Hey, did you ever fix that problem?'" Pingree asked during the House Appropriations subcommittee meeting.

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald.

Hagen provided no additional explanation for the delay, but said the Food Safety and Inspection Service believes that the rules are necessary.

The USDA is now working to account for concerns about how a rule could affect stores of various sizes, she said.

"We have been working with the regulated industry for some time to try to find ways to do this voluntarily," Hagen said. "We do think it is time that a requirement be codified."

Hannaford's records met federal requirements at the time of the recall. But because the records were incomplete, the USDA never could identify the source of the tainted beef.

That gap in the nation's food-safety system was highlighted by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in a special report published in March 2012.

The USDA has estimated that the proposed rule will affect more than 76,000 stores nationwide at a cost of $20.5 million, largely because of the increased labor of tracking various meat sources.

In the case of ground beef, for example, many stores receive tubes of coarsely ground meat that gets ground again. Some stores also use trimmings from steaks and other cuts of beef, but current rules do not require stores to record the various sources of that beef.

The USDA anticipates that the new rules will likely increase consumer confidence and allow more efficient recalls, with an estimated $3.6 million savings.

In addition, the department projects a 30 percent reduction in foodborne E. coli illness, a $23.4 million savings.

Hannaford improved its record-keeping soon after the salmonella outbreak and now follows the rules proposed by the USDA to address concerns.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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