March 25, 2012

USDA knew of risks, yet imposed no rules

By Jonathan Riskind jriskind@mainetoday.com
Washington Bureau Chief

and Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

The federal agency responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation's beef supply has known for 14 years that retailers' poor record keeping jeopardizes public health, but it failed to require better standards.

Richard Raymond
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During his final year as Department of Agriculture under secretary, Richard Raymond testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2008. “I did not feel (the inconsistency in grind logs) was a significant public health risk compared to other food safety issues,” he said. Mandating meat tracing standards wasn’t on his “radar screen,” he said. The USDA has said the logs are key to investigations into public health threats.

The Associated Press

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The Jamie L. Whitten Federal Buidling houses the administrative offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. Some food safety experts say the federal agency has a built-in conflict of interest, caught as it is between having to police U.S. agriculture and to promote it as well.

Jonathan Riskind/Washington Bureau Chief

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WHAT IS THE PROPOSED NEW RECORD-KEEPING RULE?

A summary of a new record-keeping rule for retailers was announced in January. It signals the beginning of a lengthy rule-making process that traditionally takes years.

PROPOSED RULE: Records must be kept by official establishments and retail stores that grind or chop raw beef products.

ABSTRACT: The Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, is proposing to amend its record-keeping regulations to specify that all official establishments and retail stores that grind or chop raw beef products for sale in commerce must keep records that disclose the identity of the supplier of all source materials that they use in the preparation of each lot of raw ground or chopped product and identify the names of those source materials.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture blamed poor record keeping by Hannaford supermarkets for its failure to find the source of contaminated ground beef linked in December to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 20 people in seven states.

Yet the USDA knew as early as 1998, when it recommended the industry keep better "grinding logs," that it was putting public health at risk by not requiring retailers like Hannaford to keep records that track the source of hamburger meat.

When a food-borne illness breaks out, identifying the source is critical to preventing more consumers down the line from getting sick. Grinding logs identify the various sources of meat that are sometimes combined to produce a single package of ground beef sold to consumers.

Even as the USDA heaped criticism on Hannaford for not having better record keeping practices, the agency has admitted that the grocery chain was not violating any federal rules.

The Hannaford case is now the poster child for why tough new record-keeping rules are needed, the federal agency acknowledges.

"There is a public health need to do what we can to expedite this rule making and that's our focus right now," said Daniel Engeljohn, an assistant administrator at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS.

Hannaford has changed its grinding log practices since the Dec. 15 beef recall, spokesman Michael Norton said.

Despite repeated inquiries by the Portland Press Herald, neither the USDA, the FSIS nor The Food Marketing Institute, which represents about 1,500 supermarkets and wholesalers, including Hannaford, would explain why a problem identified so clearly years earlier still had not been addressed.

And Richard Raymond, the under secretary for food safety at the USDA from 2005 to 2008, said in two recent interviews that he didn't push to turn voluntary tracing standards into mandatory rules because it wasn't on his "radar screen."

GAPS IN THE FOOD SAFETY NETWORK

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in six Americans annually -- about 48 million people -- gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases.

The CDC's 2011 estimate was that salmonella cases made up about one million of the 9.4 million cases involving known pathogens -- 38.4 million cases involved unspecified pathogens. Those salmonella cases resulted in 19,336 hospitalizations and 378 deaths, the CDC estimated.

USDA officials agree that mandatory record-keeping rules would increase the safety of the nation's food, although they stress that it's not possible to guarantee 100 percent of the time that ground beef and other food will always be pathogen free.

Still, a 2009 USDA examination of food illness cases during 2007-2008 found that a number of "recent outbreak investigations were impeded by poor retail records."

Of 16 ground beef contamination investigations at the retail level, just nine retailers kept adequate grind logs "sufficient for trace back and trace forward activities," the USDA said.

Research published last year in the Journal of Food Protection found that in a survey of 125 grocery stores, only 61 stores, or 49 percent of the sample, kept grinding logs. Of the 179 grinding logs reviewed at those stores, only 39 logs, or 22 percent, included enough information to allow investigators to trace contaminated meat back to its source.

USDA KNEW ABOUT THE PROBLEM

The USDA first issued recommendations in 1998 for the best way to keep a grinding log, but that federal "guidance" is completely voluntary and different grocers and other retailers can make up their own rules and standards.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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An inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture works at a meat processing plant in Texas in this undated photo. The USDA has not identified the source of contamination in the salmonella outbreak late last year that prompted Hannaford supermarkets to recall ground beef. Since the recall, Hannaford has voluntarily altered its grinding log practices, and federal regulators acknowledge that tough new record-keeping rules are necessary.

Courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

  


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