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

(Continued from page 1)

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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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Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights group, said the process could take longer if the grocery industry strongly opposes the rule.

According to its summary, the USDA estimates that the record-keeping requirements would affect 76,390 stores and cost them $20.5 million in labor costs to develop, record and maintain so-called grinding logs.

The Food Marketing Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that represents more than 1,500 food retailers and wholesalers, would not comment on the USDA's projected impact on the industry.

Spokesman Heather Garlich said the association is "watching and waiting" for the complete rule to make its way to the Office of Management and Budget.

Shelley Doak, executive director of the Maine Grocers Association, said she doesn't know how stores in the state would be affected by the rule, which she would not comment on.

She said there are about 350 grocery stores in the state, but she did not know how many grind beef.

Hannaford, which voluntarily improved its record-keeping after the recall, has said the changes have added one to two hours of work for an employee in each of its meat departments. The chain has more than 180 stores in five states.

Hannaford spokesman Mike Norton said Friday that the company supports the USDA's proposed rule. "It enhances food safety, and it's consistent with our practice," he said.

Nick Vacchiano, a butcher at Pat's Meat Market in Portland, could not quantify how much work the extra record-keeping would add at his store. Depending on the final rule, it could mean recording the source of all meat in each batch of ground beef, which could come from more than a dozen animals.

"Would it be feasible? It would be more difficult," he said. "Basically one more thing you have to do during the day."

But whatever requirements the USDA has, Vacchiano said, his store will comply.

The agency points out in its proposal that while stores might pay more in labor costs, the rule could save money in other areas.

It anticipates that more efficient recalls could save $3.6 million a year, and that the 30 percent reduction in foodborne illness from one strain of E. coli could save $23.4 million a year.

The USDA also notes that the rule could increase consumer confidence and reduce the amount of meat that's recalled, although it did not project the monetary value of those benefits.

The timing of the rule-making process is uncertain.

The Office of Management and Budget must review the proposal before it is presented for public comment. At the same time, the USDA indicated that the public comment period could start in February.

That means the USDA must be planning to send a detailed proposal to the Office of Management and Budget this month, said Corbo of Food and Water Watch.

"Normally, it would take OMB up to 90 days to review a rule, so either they think it will not take OMB that long to review the proposed rule or USDA's projection is a bit optimistic," Corbo said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com 

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