December 15, 2012

Still no fix a year after salmonella outbreak

Hannaford, which sold the tainted beef, has implemented recommended changes, but regulators are dragging their feet.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

One year after a recall of contaminated ground meat sold at Hannaford stores exposed blind spots in the nation's food-safety chain, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to move forward with a proposed rule to improve record-keeping and, in turn, better protect public health.

click image to enlarge

Kenneth Koehler, one of the 20 people sickened by a salmonella outbreak involving Hannaford ground beef, continues to seek a settlement that’s “well under six figures.”

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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OUTBREAK TIMELINE

OCT. 8, 2011 – First symptoms of illness appear in a victim later identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of 20 people known to have been sickened in an outbreak of  Salmonella typhimurium. When multiple people tested positive for the rare strain of salmonella, the CDC began to interview patients about the food they’d eaten in the week before their illness began and found many of them had had ground beef from Hannaford stores.

Week before Dec. 15 – Investigators from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service visit Hannaford’s distribution centers and a handful of stores, requesting grinding logs and inventory records. Hannaford was not informed of the nature of the investigation, according to a spokesman.

Dec. 15 – USDA officials inform Hannaford’s food safety director, Larry Kohl, that investigators have determined an association between a salmonella outbreak and Hannaford ground beef.

Noon – Kohl calls company executives to a meeting at the corporate offices in Scarborough to pass along initial information.

5 p.m. – Hannaford executives gather in a conference room for a conference call with officials from the USDA and the CDC. Federal and company officials decide to recall all ground beef with a sell-by date of Dec. 17 or earlier.

7:45 p.m. - Hannaford’s corporate office sends an urgent message to store managers to remove 10 varieties of Hannaford, Nature’s Place and Taste of Inspirations ground beef from their shelves within an hour. They remove 17,000 pounds of ground beef.

11 p.m. - Hannaford sends out a press release announcing the recall. The release reports that 10 people sickened with salmonella said they purchased ground beef from Hannaford between Oct. 12 and Nov. 20.

Dec. 16 – USDA issues a press release classifying the recall as having a “high” health risk and pointing to Hannaford’s “limited records” as an impediment to the investigation into the source of the contamination. It reports that the CDC knows of 14 people infected with the salmonella strain. Eleven of them ate ground beef, and 10 of them purchased that beef at Hannaford stores in Maine, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont.

  Customers begin bringing recalled meat back to stores for refunds. Hannaford says it has paid about $400,000 in refunds for more than 100,000 pounds of beef.
Dec. 20 – CDC increases the number of victims to 16 people from seven states, seven of whom were hospitalized. Eleven ate ground beef and 10 purchased it from Hannaford — the same as initially reported.

Dec. 21 – Brian DiGeorgio of Watervliet, N.Y., who was hospitalized for two weeks because of salmonella linked to Hannaford ground beef, files a personal injury lawsuit against the grocery chain.
Jan. 5, 2012 – CDC increases the number of victims to 19 people from seven states. Fourteen reported eating ground beef, and 12 reported buying it at Hannaford between Oct. 12 and Dec. 10.

Jan. 6 – U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree sends a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack telling him “the public has a right to know” more about the USDA’s investigation.

Jan. 27 – In a conference call with reporters, USDA officials say they don’t believe they’ll be able to identify the source of the contamination due to Hannaford’s “high-risk practices,” including grinding beef from different suppliers without cleaning equipment in between. They say they plan to close the investigation within a week.

Feb. 1 – The CDC issues a “final update” on its investigation, saying the salmonella outbreak appears to be over and 20 people from seven states were known to have been sickened. Eight of them were hospitalized.

Feb. 2 – USDA closes its investigation.

When a salmonella outbreak that sickened 20 people was traced to the supermarket chain in late 2011, Hannaford voluntarily improved its tracking procedures so it could better identify the point of origin of its beef and therefore the origin of any contamination.

But while the USDA said it expected to send a detailed proposal of its new rule requiring other grocers to do the same to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review last summer, that still hasn't happened.

And no one from the USDA will say what has held up the process, or when the rule might move forward.

"I have to say, I'm extremely disappointed that the regulations haven't been put into place yet," said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat representing the 1st District. She has served on the House Agriculture Committee for the past two years and hopes to continue.

After the recall, the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald investigated the problem and exposed the holes in the USDA’s system in a special report published in March.

Meanwhile, several people sickened in the salmonella outbreak are still seeking compensation from Hannaford.

"I just want the bills paid and the things to go away," said Kenneth Koehler, 53, of Old Orchard Beach, who has racked up $8,000 in medical expenses since he was sickened more than a year ago.

He hasn't eaten a hamburger since.

NO WAY TO TRACK SOURCE

Hannaford, a Scarborough-based grocery chain with 181 stores in five states, pulled 17,000 pounds of meat from its shelves on Dec. 15, 2011 -- a year ago Saturday -- after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced a rare strain of salmonella back to ground beef bought at its stores.

From there, investigators from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service took over and pored through paperwork, including sales records and logs kept near meat grinding machines, as it tried to figure out which of Hannaford's dozen meat suppliers sold the contaminated beef to the stores.

But there were two problems. One was that, when meat department employees ground trimmings left over from slabs of meat that had been cut into steaks and roasts, they didn't record where that beef came from.

Most of the packages of ground beef on Hannaford's shelves come from tubes of coarsely ground meat that's ground again in stores.

The second problem was that the meat departments didn't clean their grinding machines between the batches of tube beef and the meat that came from trimmings, making way for cross-contamination. Neither practice violated existing USDA rules.

So, no matter the source of the ground beef that sickened consumers, there was no way to prove where the contamination originated.

Eventually, the food-safety investigators gave up. They closed the case on Feb. 2.

That same week, Hannaford resumed grinding meat from trimmings, a practice it halted after the recall. Since then, its meat departments have recorded the source of that meat as well as when it goes into the grinder, company officials have said. They also clean equipment between grinding trimmings and grinding tube meat, they said.

The USDA's proposed rule would require all stores that grind beef to record the source of all the meat they grind to help investigators identify the supplier of tainted meat so that the cause of the contamination can be addressed.

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