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

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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:

Hannaford doesn't deny it was aware there was room for improvement in its record keeping.

"There was knowledge in the field ... that (the Food Safety and Inspection Service) saw opportunities for better tracing practices," Norton said.

But, he said, the company didn't foresee that not adopting the "gold standard" would open it up to the liability it's facing now.

Food safety experts agree that it is unlikely the contamination originated at the Hannaford stores.

"We at FSIS are very specific in that the point at which beef would typically be contaminated is during the slaughter operation," Engeljohn said.

But without the grinding logs to prove where the contaminated meat came from, the investigation stalled out at Hannaford.

"Are we likely the only party involved? No, probably not, but you can only deal with the information you've got," Norton said. He refused to identify the company's meat suppliers.

Norton said halting the use of trim was a stopgap measure to simplify Hannaford's grinding practices and records right away. He said stores resumed grinding trim in the first week of February, but they now clean equipment before and after those grinds and record the source of all cuts of meat used.

Those additional steps have tacked on between one and two hours of work for an employee in every meat department every day, said Norton.

"There's definitely an impact," he said.


Retailers' approach to record keeping varies. Some keep detailed records, most don't. But that could change under a proposed rule that would require retailers to keep detailed grinding logs.

A three-sentence summary of the proposed rule released last month said it would require retailers to record "all source materials" going into ground beef.

Norton said Hannaford hopes the USDA will start holding all meat retailers to that standard and supports the agency's effort to upgrade record-keeping rules.

"Going forward, this whole area needs a lot more clarity. ... What we'd like to see, as an organization, is something that takes the whole industry along," he said.

A study published last year in the Journal of Food Protection surveyed 125 grocery stores in California, Minnesota and Tennessee about their record-keeping practices. Less than half of the stores kept grinding logs, and less than a quarter of the logs that were reviewed contained enough information for investigators to trace meat back to its source.

Locally, grocers' practices also vary.

At Pat's Meat Market in Portland, butcher Nick Vacchiano grinds meat every two hours using only trim from cuts of beef sourced from three suppliers in the western United States.

No beef is ground before it gets to the store, and no logs are kept of what goes into the grinder. Vacchiano, whose father owns the Stevens Avenue market, said the operation is so small, there's no need for extensive records.

"We're watching everything that goes on," he said.

Like Hannaford, Shaw's Supermarkets grind both tube beef and trim, said spokesman Luke Friedrich. But unlike Hannaford, the stores' grinding logs record the source of primal cuts used as well as the supplier for tube beef, he said.

Friedrich said Shaw's has "been carefully reviewing the new USDA guidance on record keeping" as part of ongoing evaluations.

The summary of the new record-keeping rule was published by the White House Office of Management and Budget after the Hannaford recall. Engeljohn said the USDA had sent the summary to the White House OMB last fall, before the recall. A more detailed proposal is expected this summer, triggering a two-month public comment period.

He said he hopes the rule is put in place by the end of 2012, at the latest.

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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