March 25, 2012

Here's what we know – and what we'll never know

Late last year, salmonella from tainted ground beef sickened at least 20 people – and maybe hundreds more. How did it happen?

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

First of two parts

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The Hannaford supermarket at Mill Creek in South Portland stays busy late last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Feb. 1 that the salmonella outbreak appeared to have ended, but the Northeast grocery chain still faces legal claims from people who became sick from tainted ground beef.

File Photo by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Danielle Wadsworth, 31, of Lewiston, was among 20 people known to have been sickened with a rare, antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella linked to ground beef sold at Hannaford last year. Wadsworth, whose symptoms required three days of hospitalization, now is pursuing a claim against the supermarket chain.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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ANATOMY OF A RECALL: AT A GLANCE

The USDA has failed to require retailers to track what goes into hamburger meat -- even though better records would protect consumers from some food-borne illnesses.

Most retailers, including Hannaford, do not keep those detailed records and have chosen not to follow federal recommendations to do so.

Federal officials and food safety experts do not believe the salmonella contamination in last year's outbreak happened at Hannaford.

The USDA never found the source of contamination.n In total, 20 people from seven states were infected with a multidrug-resistant strain of Salmonella Typhimurium. Eight were hospitalized. There were no deaths reported.

Victims ranged from a year old to 79 years old.

Those who were taken ill came from the following states: Hawaii (1); Kentucky (1); Massachusetts (1); Maine (4); New Hampshire (6); New York (6); and Vermont (1).

Among those for whom information is available, illnesses began on or after Oct. 8, 2011.

Laboratory tests by state laboratories in Maine and New York isolated the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium from two separate samples of leftover ground beef purchased from Hannaford stores and collected from the homes of unrelated ill people in Maine and New York.

Of 19 victims able to provide information, 14 reported eating ground beef in the week before their illnesses began. Among those 14, 12 said it came from Hannaford stores between Oct. 12 and Dec. 10, 2011.

SOURCE: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; to see the agency's full report go to:

www.cdc.gov/salmonella/typhimurium-groundbeef/020112/index.html

On the night before Halloween, Danielle Wadsworth's boyfriend made tacos for dinner at her home in Lewiston. A week later, she was hooked up to two intravenous drips at Central Maine Medical Center as doctors debated whether she needed a blood transfusion.

Wadsworth, an otherwise healthy 31-year-old woman, was one of 20 people known to have been infected with a rare antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella linked to ground beef sold at Hannaford stores in seven states last fall.

Severe stomach pain and near-constant diarrhea containing blood concerned Wadsworth enough to seek medical treatment. She was hospitalized for three days and missed two weeks of work.

"I wouldn't even wish it on my worst enemy," said Wadsworth, who's pursuing a claim against Hannaford supermarkets.

Federal and state investigators traced the "genetic fingerprint" of the salmonella to ground beef sold at Hannaford, prompting the Scarborough-based grocery chain to pull 17,000 pounds of meat from its shelves on Dec. 15 in the first health-related recall of a store-brand product in its 129-year history.

Ultimately, as many as 600 people may have been sickened by the outbreak, since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only one in 30 cases in a salmonella outbreak are reported.

But is Hannaford the source of the salmonella contamination?

Food safety experts don't think so.

The evidence, they say, points to contamination further back in the food supply chain, to one of the dozen meat distributors that sells meat to Hannaford and other stores. But investigators were never able to identify the source -- and possibly prevent more consumers from getting sick -- because of Hannaford's record keeping, even though it exceeded federal requirements. However, Hannaford's records, like most retailers, still fell short of USDA recommendations.

Interviews with current and former officials of the USDA, its investigative agencies, food safety experts and retailers reveal a gaping hole in the government's food safety oversight. The recall that saw wary consumers return 100,000 pounds of beef also shines a spotlight on how one grocery chain responded during a corporate crisis.

HANNAFORD TIMELINE

The first hint at Hannaford that something was wrong came in mid-December, when four investigators from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service showed up at Hannaford's South Portland and Schodack, N.Y., distribution centers and a handful of Hannaford stores.

Without telling the company why, they collected copies of inventory records and grinding logs, according to Mike Norton, Hannaford's director of corporate communications. Hannaford employees were only told it was part of a food-borne illness investigation, one of 17 the agency conducted in 2011.

"You don't know who else they're talking to," Norton said, describing how events unfolded over the next several days.

On the morning of Dec. 15, Norton said, Hannaford's director of food safety, Larry Kohl, called company executives to a noon meeting at the corporate office on Pleasant Hill Road in Scarborough. Federal food inspectors, working with public health officials, had made a connection between Hannaford's beef and a salmonella outbreak, he explained at the meeting. They'd hear more later that day, Kohl told the group.

"We knew we were probably going to do a recall, but we didn't know the scope," Norton said.

That was determined at a 5 p.m. conference call with officials from the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The federal agents told company officials that a national database kept by the CDC had connected 14 people from seven states infected with the same strain of salmonella. Through interviews with the patients, public health officials found that 10 of them had eaten ground beef purchased at Hannaford. (The number of people known to have become sick later rose to 20, with 12 reporting having eaten Hannaford beef in the week before their symptoms appeared.)

(Continued on page 2)

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Tracking meat products

Do you think the federal government should require, rather than recommend, better tracking of meat products?

Yes

No

View Results