January 4, 2013

USDA proposes rule calling for improved ground-beef tracking

The regulation would have helped investigators identify the source of contaminated beef that sickened some Hannaford customers in 2011.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The federal government is moving forward with a proposal to require grocery stores that grind beef to keep better track of all the meat they use – something that would have helped investigators identify the source of contaminated beef that sickened Hannaford customers more than a year ago.

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In this file photo, ground beef comes out of a meat grinder. The federal government is moving forward with a proposal to require grocery stores that grind beef to keep better track of all the meat they use – something that would have helped investigators identify the source of contaminated beef that sickened Hannaford customers more than a year ago.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has listed the proposed rule among nearly 200 regulatory actions it plans to send to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review.

According to the summary of the proposal, the tighter rules for ground beef would add about $20 million in labor costs for grocery stores.

It also says the change would reduce the cost of ground beef recalls, enhance investigations and reduce illnesses from an E. coli strain linked to the meat by 30 percent.

The summary says the agency expects to publish a formal proposal in the Federal Register in February, starting a two-month period for public comment. A spokesman said the USDA will not comment on the proposal before then.

The proposal is separate from a list of food safety rules proposed Friday by the Food and Drug Administration. (See related story.)

A salmonella outbreak in late 2011 that was linked to ground beef sold by the Scarborough-based Hannaford grocery chain highlighted the need for grocers to keep better records of the beef they grind.

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

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 beef that sickened at least 20 people.

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.

Since 1998, the USDA had been recommending, but not requiring, that stores keep better beef-grinding records.

Soon after the Hannaford recall, it said it had been working on a rule to require stores to record the source of all meat that they ground. It said it expected to send a detailed proposal of that rule to the Office of Management and Budget last summer or, at the latest, the end of 2012.

USDA officials would not say last month why that hadn't happened yet or when they expected the proposal to go to the Office of Management and Budget.

The summary posted Dec. 21 on the office's Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions is the first indication that the next step could be coming soon.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine said she urged the USDA last month to establish the record-keeping regulations.

She said she is "glad that the USDA is taking this step and has released this draft rule," and believes it will "lead to increased consumer confidence in the safety of their food."

However, Pingree said she is concerned about how the rule could affect small farmers and direct-to-consumer retailers. She said she wants to hear from them and encourage them to speak up during the public comment period.

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

The comment period will give industry advocates and the public a chance to say whether they see the proposed rule as too burdensome or too lax.

If the Office of Management and Budget does not find substantive objections, a draft final rule will be developed and the review and comment process will be repeated within the office and the USDA.

If the rule is adopted, retailers will likely get time to comply.

(Continued on page 2)

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