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

(Continued from page 3)

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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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

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents southern Maine and sits on the House Agriculture Committee, has said if the USDA doesn't adopt stricter regulations, she'll "introduce legislation requiring it."

Pingree, who sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in early January urging him to provide the public with more information about the Hannaford investigation, believes it's important to be able to track the source of contaminated meat.

"This isn't a problem for small, local retailers, so I don't think we should take a one-size-fits-all approach, but the USDA really needs to focus on big retailers and tighten up the rules," she said in a prepared statement.

NOT OVER YET

Although the CDC said Feb. 1 that the salmonella outbreak appeared to have ended, it may be awhile before the incident is behind Hannaford, which is facing several legal claims from people who were sickened.

So far, the only lawsuit is from Brian DiGeorgio, an upstate New York man who slipped into a coma a few days after eating a hamburger made from Hannaford beef. He was hospitalized for more than two weeks.

Other victims, including Wadsworth, have retained attorneys to help them get compensated.

Ron Simon, a food-poisoning attorney from Texas, is representing three members of the Dugan family of Manchester, N.H., who claim they were sickened by beef they cooked in a pasta sauce. Simon, whose firm has handled some 5,000 salmonella cases in the past five years, said his clients have gotten payouts ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to several million.

That Hannaford can't figure out the source of the contaminated meat is "ridiculous," said Simon. "On those type of cases, they have no defense."

If a retailer knows who supplied the contaminated meat, it can turn around and sue that company, said Simon. Hannaford doesn't have that option.

"Legally, it doesn't matter," he said. "The store is responsible, period."

PUBLIC RELATIONS CHALLENGE

David Livingston, a supermarket analyst from Wisconsin, said any losses due to a recall like Hannaford's would probably be undetectable in the stock price of its parent company, the Belgium-based Delhaize Group, whose spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Hannaford President Beth Newlands Campbell also declined requests for an interview.

The recall did not appear to affect sales, even in the short term, according to Hannaford spokesman Norton. In the holiday week after the recall -- a typically busy time for grocery stores -- the company broke its all-time record for sales, though he declined to give specific sales figures.

"I think if the supermarkets get on top of it right away and you don't have people dropping over dead, it usually blows over pretty quick," Livingston said.

Skip King, a communications and crisis-management consultant from Yarmouth, said consumers are aware that there's always a "small but real risk" of getting a food-borne illness and are tolerant of the occasional recall.

He said Hannaford got information out quickly, removed the product in question from stores and took care of its customers.

"I think they did, all things considered, a pretty good job of (handling the recall)," King said.

"If there's another one within a comparatively brief time, that's a different story," he added.

King noted that Hannaford's response was improved from its last crisis -- the 2008 data breach that exposed more than 4 million credit and debit card numbers to computer hackers.

In that incident, the company was criticized for waiting weeks before releasing information to the public.

"From my perspective, they did a much better job with this story than they did with that one," said King.

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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