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
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

Tracking meat products

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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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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:

Since the USDA doesn't have the authority to require a recall, it was up to company officials to decide what to do. At that meeting, they decided to recall all store-brand ground beef with a sell-by date of Dec. 17 or earlier -- meaning anything that was put on the shelves on Dec. 15 or before.

That set off a chain of events, starting with a message that appeared at 7:45 p.m. on monitors at store registers throughout the chain, telling clerks to alert on-duty managers to immediately check their computers for an important announcement.

Their inboxes contained a list of 10 varieties of ground beef carrying the Hannaford, Taste of Inspirations and Nature's Place labels that had to be removed from the shelves within an hour.

Meanwhile, the corporate communications staff was putting together a press release that was sent out around 11 p.m. to 675 media outlets and later emailed to 70,000 customers.

The next morning, meat managers got their departments together and delivered another message: Stop grinding meat trimmings.


The major roadblock in the USDA's investigation, according to the agency, was the lack of information about ground beef that's made from "trim," the scraps of meat left over when steaks and roasts are cut in stores from larger slabs.

About 20 percent of Hannaford's ground beef packages are made from trim. The rest comes to the company in tubes of coarsely ground meat that's ground again in stores and packaged.

About a dozen suppliers from as far away as Texas deliver boxes of meat -- some with tubes of ground beef, others with plastic-packaged primal cuts -- to Hannaford's two meat distribution centers in Maine and New York. From there, the meat is trucked to Hannaford's 179 retail stores in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.

Every morning, Hannaford meat clerks grind beef with varying percentages of fat, depending on what's needed in their store that day. After every grind, they write down information about the meat on a paper log that's kept near the grinder -- fat content, the number of packages made and the sell-by date.

Clerks also write down the lot numbers for each box of tube meat but not the primal cuts whose trim was used for ground beef.

Complicating their ability to trace the source of any tainted beef, the stores didn't clean equipment between grinding the tube meat and grinding the trim, which created an opportunity for cross-contamination, company officials admit.

The USDA called those practices "high-risk" and pointed to them as the reason its investigation was unsuccessful.

Yet, there are no USDA regulations that require retailers to clean equipment between grinding beef from different companies, or to keep grinding logs at all. The USDA only requires that meat retailers keep track of what suppliers they use, how much meat they receive and when it arrives.

Still, grocers are aware that the agency recommends a much higher level of transparency, said Daniel Engeljohn, an assistant administrator for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

He said the Hannaford case proves that they're choosing not to listen.

"We've publicly been making statements and developing best practices for retail since at least 2007," Engeljohn said. "It's evidence that, industry-wide, there has not been good adoption of best practices."

Industry representatives at Food Marketing Institute, which represents 1,500 retailers and wholesalers, would not address why retailers don't keep better grinding logs as an industry standard. Each store has a different process for keeping track -- or not -- of the source of their ground beef, and the trade organization said it would be difficult to have one mandated policy that would fit everything from a massive grocery chain down to a corner butcher shop.

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Tracking meat products

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



View Results