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.

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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.

The rule was in the works before the Hannaford recall, but the incident added a sense of urgency to getting it in place, Daniel Engeljohn, then-assistant administrator for the USDA's food safety policy division, said at the time. He said he wanted to see it move forward by last summer or the end of the year, at the latest.

Engeljohn, who has since taken a new position within the agency, was traveling out of the country last week and didn't respond to requests for comment.

Rachel Edelstein, his replacement in the Office of Policy and Program Development, refused to be interviewed or offer any comment on the rule.

No one from the USDA, which was also tight-lipped during the recall investigation, would say when it might send the proposal to the White House.

POLITICS SLOWED PROCESS

Pingree, who said earlier this year that she'd introduce legislation requiring better record-keeping if a rule wasn't adopted, urged the USDA last week to implement regulations requiring meat grinding logs at retail stores, she said.

The agency has drafted regulations and is reviewing them internally, Pingree said, "but we have yet to see them." She added that the USDA did not offer her any explanation for the hold-up.

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

Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for the Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights group nonprofit Food and Water Watch, said the record-keeping rule is among many proposals that the Obama administration was "sitting on" during the presidential election to prevent Republican criticism about over-regulation.

"They have such a backlog right now that it's going to take a while for the process to move forward again," he said, speculating that the USDA could send the proposed rule to the White House as soon as next month.

Despite the USDA knowing about the need for better record-keeping for years, Corbo believes it wasn't until last year that the rule-making process started because of pressure from the grocery industry -- namely through the trade association Food Marketing Institute -- not to adopt regulations that have a financial impact on retailers.

Earlier this year, the Food Marketing Institute wouldn't address why it might be taking so long for the rule to be put in place, but said it would be willing to work with the USDA on a "workable" rule. Heather Garlich, spokeswoman for the association, said on Friday that she couldn't comment on the proposed rule because she hadn't seen it.

Richard McIntire, a USDA spokesman, said the proposal "is considered 'pre-decisional and deliberative,' thus not subject to release."

Mike Norton, spokesman for Hannaford, has said the additional record-keeping and equipment cleaning that the stores started doing after the recall has added between one and two hours of work for an employee in every meat department.

A Shaw's spokesman has said that supermarket chain started recording the source of all ground beef before the Hannaford recall.

In the past year, Norton said, Hannaford's food-safety team has fielded between eight and 10 inquiries from other food retailers asking about the company's improved record-keeping.

McIntire did not know whether Hannaford's improved records provided critical information during an investigation in July when a salmonella outbreak led Cargill Beef to recall 30,000 pounds of meat, mostly sold to Hannaford stores. But, he said, it was definitely helpful for identifying the source.

STILL DEALING WITH THE FALLOUT

The December 2011 Hannaford case was not an isolated incident.

Since 2007, the USDA has not been able to identify the source of contamination in 35 percent of its ground-beef investigations and 37 percent of all investigations, it has said. The roadblock is usually a lack of product information, a lack of epidemiological information or complications due to cross-contamination, McIntire said.

If the USDA had been able to identify a supplier in the Hannaford case, the supermarket chain probably wouldn't have gotten stuck with the cost of compensating those sickened in the salmonella outbreak, say attorneys associated with the case.

Norton wouldn't say whether the company has paid out any settlements. Ron Simon, a food poisoning attorney from Texas who represented three members of the Dugan family of Manchester, N.H., who had been sickened by the salmonella outbreak, said their case has been resolved, but he wouldn't give any details.

Benjamin Hill, an attorney from Dreyer Boyajian in Albany, N.Y., is representing several other people sickened in the outbreak, including Brian DiGeorgio, who was hospitalized for two weeks and filed a lawsuit against Hannaford.

Hill said last week that the suit is ongoing, as are negotiations for compensation for his other clients, whom he wouldn't name. He wouldn't say how much money any of them are seeking.

Koehler of Old Orchard Beach also declined to specify what he's asking of Hannaford, other than to say he wants to cover his medical bills and get compensated for his pain and suffering -- and that it's "well under six figures."

Since he spent three days curled up on his bathroom floor and a half-day in the emergency room at Southern Maine Medical Center in November 2011, Koehler has had persistent bowel issues, including bleeding and hemorrhoids, that only started to abate three months ago, he said.

His medical bills have included visits to his primary care physician and a gastroenterologist, colonoscopies, endoscopies and blood work.

Koehler said the illness was life-changing. He still shops at Hannaford, but he won't even walk by the meat case.

"And you're talking to a guy who loved ground beef," he said.

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

lbridgers@pressherald.com

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