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 3)

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 same day Hannaford announced the recall, the company ordered its butchers to stop grinding trim and to start throwing it away. But since then, Hannaford has developed a more detailed record-keeping system designed to show exactly what pieces of meat go into every package of ground beef. Trim is still ground, Norton said, because it is good, certified meat, but now Hannaford knows the source of every piece of trim in each package of ground beef.

"We now record all source materials used to generate in-store ground beef."

The supermarket is also cleaning and sanitizing its meat-grinding equipment more frequently, Norton said.

LEGAL LIABILITY

Drew Falkenstein, an attorney with Marler Clark in Seattle and author of the Food Poison Journal blog, said Hannaford's incomplete grinding logs exposed the company to legal liability.

"If Hannaford could show who supplied them with the contaminated ground beef, they could do what's called a crossclaim and sue another entity," Falkenstein said.

Marler Clark is in the midst of investigating whether several potential clients were sickened by beef sold at Hannaford stores.

A mandatory grind log rule would be a logical step that would safeguard retailers, Falkenstein said.

"I really don't know why" it has taken so long to put the rule in place, Falkenstein said. "Rule making is a long and complex process, you might say. But the cynic in me might say that the USDA is at least somewhat affected by industry opinion and industry desire on issues like this."

Sarah Klein, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., and a food safety expert, said when the USDA launches an investigation into a contamination outbreak or works on new mandates such as better beef grinding records, there is a built-in conflict at work.

"The USDA has always had this tension between wanting to serve two masters in their responsibility to promote U.S. agriculture and in their public health responsibility to police U.S. agriculture," Klein said. "It is difficult for the agency to talk about what the potential sources of contamination are without bad mouthing, for lack of a better word, some producers, suppliers or vendors who may end up being blameless. It is particularly difficult for the agency to do that given its responsibility to promote these same vendors and producers."

NEW REGULATIONS TAKE TIME

It can take months or even years to put a new rule in place, no matter how simple or straightforward the rule might seem, Raymond said.

The rule making process will begin when the USDA comes out with a specific proposed rule this summer that it sends for review to the White House Office of Management and Budget. OMB's review, which includes looking at whether the rule's cost to industry and the public is worth the benefits, typically takes about 90 days.

If OMB clears the rule, it is then published as a proposed rule in the Federal Register and is open for public comment, giving industry and advocates and the general public the chance to weigh in on whether the rule is too burdensome or too lax.

After the public comment period, which generally is about two months, the agency will assess whether any substantive objections were raised. If not, a draft final rule is developed and the entire review and clearance process is repeated within the USDA and OMB, with no set time frame.

Even after a rule is adopted there likely will be time allotted for all retailers to comply. In all, months or even years still might go by before a grind log rule is actually in effect.

"The average time to create a rule, write it and put it through the process and get it into action is about three years, two years minimum if there is no controversy," Raymond said. "The American process is to give everyone the ability to have their say."

Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

jriskind@mainetoday.com

Twitter: MaineTodayDC

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

 

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

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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