March 25, 2012

USDA knew of risks, yet imposed no rules

By Jonathan Riskind
Washington Bureau Chief

and Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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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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.

"We're doing more than what's required and were before (the recall,)" Hannaford's Norton said.

The USDA has done little but talk about the problem of inadequate grinding logs, but the Hannaford case is a big reason why talk finally may be turning to action. A detailed proposal for those rules could be released this summer, though it likely will take months or years to put final rules into effect.

"The Hannaford recall caused a shift," said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group. Federal officials were "talking about it before, but this wound up being a big warning sign that they needed to take action."

Since 1998, there have been 225 recalls of ground beef, a number that includes recalls at wholesalers and other food service entities in addition to retailers like Hannaford.

A top federal food safety official was crystal clear in December 2009 about the public health need for the government to require retailers to keep better meat grinding records.

"We often don't have all the information we need to protect public health," said Jerold Mande, then the USDA's acting under secretary for food safety, at a public food safety meeting in Washington.

For instance, the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service couldn't track the source of contaminated ground beef from one retailer that was linked to an E. coli outbreak in Kentucky in 2008 because of inadequate records.

That means consumers had no way of knowing when they walked into their local supermarket whether that same contaminated beef was on the shelves, since it had never been traced back to the original source.

"The retailer acknowledged it produced several beef grinds but did not maintain the grinding logs," Mande said. "If we had been able to identify the source or sources, we could have determined if other contaminated meat still remained in commerce. Doing so would have prevented other consumers from getting sick, enabled us to determine whether plants were still producing contaminated product, and allowed us to verify if corrective actions were working."


But why has it taken so long to put a grinding log mandate in place once the USDA decided that was needed?

The USDA wouldn't directly address that question. All the agency will say is that it hopes to release a detailed proposed rule by this summer.

"FSIS is developing a grinding log proposed rule that would close existing gaps in record keeping, improve safeguards and address other concerns that surfaced during the Hannaford recall," the USDA said in a statement released to the Portland Press Herald on March 5. "Until a rule is in place, FSIS is encouraging the industry to comply with best practice guidelines, and will provide technical assistance to increase voluntary compliance with these guidelines to prevent food-borne illness."

But the Hannaford case is fresh evidence that too many retailers won't adopt stringent enough rules voluntarily, Engeljohn acknowledged.

"This isn't as a direct consequence of Hannaford that this rule making's coming forward, but it is evidence that industry-wide there has not been good adoption of the best practices guidance that we have put out there," Engeljohn said. "Because we've identified this issue about inadequate grinding logs and record keeping being maintained, particularly at retail, ... it's time to take a regulatory action to put in place more stringent regulatory requirements for grinding log records associated with ground beef."


The Food Marketing Institute says it is working with the USDA to agree on a "workable" mandate but won't commit to what a tougher set of rules would look like.

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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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