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

(Continued from page 2)

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.

"We're extremely interested and engaged in identifying a workable rule with USDA," said Hilary Thesmar, FMI's vice president of food safety programs, via email.

The industry group says it remains up to individual retailers to decide how to keep their own records, and that no voluntary, industry-wide standards have been adopted that all retailers uniformly follow.

The institute wouldn't address directly the question of why it has taken so long to accomplish that goal, but the trade group indicated it doesn't agree that all stores should follow the same rules.

"Retailers have differing solutions to keep track of their grind logs," Thesmar said. "It's difficult to impose a one-size-fits-all standard."

FMI has been talking since 2008 with the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service about "how retailers can maintain full grinding logs that are both workable for store management and for the good of public health," Thesmar said.

Advocate Corbo has a different explanation of why many retailers might balk at a federal mandate: money.

"It would cost more money to set up proper record keeping-- not only the design, but the cost of labor to record the information," Corbo said.

However, the American Meat Institute, a lobbying group representing slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, wants to see grinding logs required at the retail level.

"We are on the record for supporting those kind of manufacturers' logs," said Scott Goltry, American Meat Institute's vice president in charge of food safety and inspection issues.

RULE NOT A PRIORITY DURING BUSH YEARS

Raymond, the under secretary for food safety during the second George W. Bush administration, said the food industry generally opposes any new regulation.

Raymond said he spent much of his time at USDA pursuing, without success, a requirement that agency meat plant inspectors pursue a "risk-based system" that would have them spend more time at plants with bad safety records and at plants that produced higher risk products such as raw ground beef.

But Raymond said he didn't push to turn voluntary grind log and tracing standards into mandatory rules during his tenure. Raymond said he believed that most retailers followed federal recommendations, and he said that in the Republican Bush administration the emphasis was on less, not more, regulation.

Asked about instances during his time at USDA when insufficient retail records prevented the source of an outbreak from being found, Raymond said that while he was aware of the grind log issue, "it was not high on my radar screen."

In a big universe of food safety problems he was trying to address, inconsistent grind log practices didn't rise to the level of an urgent problem that needed federal regulation, and he does not recall whether he was ever presented with a request from USDA staff to do so, Raymond said.

"I did not feel it was a significant public health risk compared to other food safety issues," Raymond said.

Still, Raymond called the Hannaford case an example of a "bad problem" caused by inadequate records.

HANNAFORD ALTERS GRINDING PRACTICES

Before the outbreak, Hannaford maintained grinding logs for most, but not all, of the beef ground in the store. Eighty percent of the ground beef they sell arrives pre-ground from one of the company's dozen beef suppliers -- the in-store butcher just fine-grinds it before packaging it for sale. But about 20 percent of Hannaford's ground beef comes from "trim," the leftover meat in-store butchers carve off of larger cuts of meat.

Once a day, Hannaford stores would take all that leftover trim and grind it -- but there was no "log" tracking the source of every bit of that meat, since it came from multiple cuts received from multiple processors.

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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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