March 15, 2013

Our View: Feds should move faster on meat safety rules

The time is long overdue for the creation of rules to track the source of contaminated meat.

Don't be shocked that more than a year has passed since 20 people became seriously ill from eating beef ground at Hannaford stores and the federal government still hasn't established rules to prevent the same thing from happning again.

Chellie Pingree, Elizabeth Hagen, Alfred Almanza
click image to enlarge

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D- Maine, center, questions Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety, and Alfred Almanza, administrator, Food Safety And Inspection Service, right, during a House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing in Washington on Wednesday.

The Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has known about the problem for 15 years, so a year more or less probably doesn't seem like a big deal.

Well, it is a big deal, and people who depend on the federal agency to protect the food system deserve a quicker response when a weakness is exposed.

What happened in 2011 could happen anywhere, and the results could be much worse next time.

Investigators were able to track food-borne bacteria back to Hannaford supermarkets when people started getting sick with salmonella, but that's where trail ended. Meat that came from several sources was mixed together when it was ground into hamburger. There was no way to determine where the contaminated meat originated.

That's a problem because the way the food system has been centralized, a few mega farms and processing plants send products all over the country.

An outbreak of a deadly bacteria could be spread to a multitude of stores and restaurants with no way to track it back to the source until more people fall sick.

Testifying before the House Agriculture Committee, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services Undersecretary Elisabeth Hagen admits there is a problem.

Hagen said her agency had been working with the industry to find ways to fix it voluntarily. She now says "it's time that a requirement be codified."

This is surprising news for people who watched the Hannaford outbreak.

Agriculture Committee member Rep. Chellie Pingree, D- Maine, told Hagen that her constituents are wondering what happened. 'It's been 15 months," Pingree said. "(P)eople are saying, 'Hey did you ever fix that problem?' " (Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.)

All that is required is that businesses that grind beef for hamburger keep careful records about the sources of the meat that was used.

A 'grinding log" could give the investigator the information they need to trace an outbreak back to source and keep it from spreading. That action should not wait until there is another outbreak.

 

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