December 22, 2011

Pingree presses USDA to identify source of tainted meat

She says the Hannaford salmonella case points to a systemic flaw and a need for better tracking.

By Leslie Bridgers
Staff Writer

and Jonathan Riskind
Washington Bureau Chief

The U.S. Department of Agriculture should explain to the public why it hasn't been able to identify the source of contaminated meat sold by Hannaford Supermarkets over two months this fall, said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.

click image to enlarge

Rep. Chellie Pingree

Almost a week after Hannaford issued a recall of the ground beef, the USDA would not say Wednesday whether it has made progress toward determining the source of the contamination that led to the outbreak of a rare form of salmonella.

"We have asked them what is holding up (the investigation)," said Pingree, D-1st District, a member of the House Agriculture Committee. "We get the same answer -- that they are investigating the problem but are having a difficult time tracking down the sources of the meat."

Scarborough-based Hannaford, which has stores in five states, issued the recall last Thursday of ground beef with sell-by dates of Dec. 17 or earlier.

In all, 16 people from seven states -- including four from Maine -- had reported becoming ill from Oct. 8 to Dec. 3 and had tested positive for the salmonella strain, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. Of those people, 10 said they ate ground beef from Hannaford stores, and seven were hospitalized.

Last week, the agency said Hannaford's "limited records" were impeding the investigation and that the USDA "is pursuing rule-making to address the concern."

Experts say Hannaford's case is just the latest example of a foodborne illness investigation that has been hindered by less-than-ideal record-keeping practices.

"It happens all the time," said Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer from Seattle, Wash.

The problem is that stores often mix meat from different sources into a batch of ground beef, and they're not required to record what meat was used. The beef is ground in the stores.

"That is currently voluntary," Pingree said. "This is a big system problem."

Sometimes combing through records can result in identifying a source of the contamination, but not always, said Marler.

"You might simply not be able to do it," he said.

USDA spokesman Neil Gaffney has not responded to repeated requests from The Portland Press Herald for information about what is lacking in Hannaford's records or what new rules the agency is considering.

Pingree criticized the agency Wednesday for not telling the public more about the weak record-keeping requirements that make it difficult to quickly track down the source of contaminated meat.

"It is good for the USDA to give more information to the public," Pingree said. "A case like this helps the public understand why we need more record-keeping and tracking."

Hannaford spokesman Michael Norton, who has said the grocery chain complies with industry record-keeping standards, wouldn't speculate about what information would make its records more complete.

Pingree said the chain is not to blame for the difficulty of the investigation.

"They have been doing everything they are required to do," she said. Pingree said a "fault in our system" is the real hurdle.

Pingree said the USDA is working on new rules that could be in place as soon as next year and would require stores to keep track "of every piece of beef that goes into a package of ground beef."

It would help if more people were aware of the problem, she said, which is why the USDA should be making more of an example of the Hannaford investigation.

"If the USDA was more open with people about the fault in our system, we would be more likely to fix the system and have the political will to do it," she said.

Hannaford will give refunds for any ground beef within the recall's scope, regardless of whether it's still in its package, Norton said. The recall covers the Hannaford, Taste of Inspirations and Nature's Place labels.

(Continued on page 2)

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