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

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

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.)

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 DAILY GRIND

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.

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.

NO INDUSTRY STANDARD

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.

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.

Compared to the data breach, the number of customers affected by the contaminated meat was relatively small. But the inconvenience of a fraudulent credit card charge is hard to compare to a hospital stay.

"There's nothing more significant than customer safety," Norton said. And how much Hannaford has to compensate customers who got sick could reflect that.

DiGeorgio, who has sued Hannaford, didn't put a dollar amount on damages he's seeking. That's because he was still in physical therapy and out of work when he filed, said his attorney, Donald Boyajian, with Albany-based law firm Dreyer Boyajian.

Norton said Hannaford doesn't comment on pending litigation, and he wouldn't say whether the company has offered money to any victims in the outbreak.

Simon, the Texas attorney, said nearly all of his firm's salmonella cases have been settled out of court. Most companies don't want to go to trial because, if they lose, they have to admit to sickening people -- and he believes the chance of victory is slim.

Also, he said, companies don't want to be in a courtroom faced with the question of how their food got contaminated.

"'I don't know' is not a good answer," said Simon, "because the next question is, how do you prevent it from happening again?"

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at

lbridgers@pressherald.com

 

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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