March 26, 2012

Silent treatment: USDA frustrates Maine lawmakers during outbreak

By Jonathan Riskind
Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON - People were getting sick and hundreds of nervous customers were returning thousands of pounds of beef to Hannaford supermarkets.

Rep. Chellie Pingree
click image to enlarge

Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, left, participates in a House Agriculture Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Jan. 25. “There wasn’t sufficient information provided ... (and) the process itself doesn’t allow for enough regular updates,” the congresswoman said about the USDA releasing public information about its investigation into the Hannaford beef recall. The investigation was closed Feb. 2.

Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

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But as the recall played out, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency Americans rely on to ensure their meat is safe to eat, stayed tight-lipped, beyond saying that inadequate meat grinding records at Hannaford were making it tough to track down the source of the bad beef.

For weeks the USDA deferred all questions, referring queries to the initial announcement of the recall. They would not say how they were going about the investigation, what information was missing from the Hannaford grinding logs, how many investigators were involved, or even a simple description of how a standard investigation is handled.

Even two of Maine's congressional representatives, who have committee assignments that involve the oversight and budgeting of the USDA, couldn't get answers to basic questions about the investigation. What's more, they both learned about the outbreak from media reports even though Hannaford is based in Scarborough and four of the original 19 victims were Mainers. A 20th victim later was identified.

"I think we have been very clear with (the USDA) that it was our sense, witnessing this in our home state, that there wasn't sufficient information provided, that the process itself doesn't allow for enough regular updates," Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said of her office's efforts to get more information. Pingree sits on the House Agriculture Committee that oversees the USDA.

The system that is supposed to inform and protect consumers was unresponsive. And when they finally agreed on Jan. 6 to brief Pingree on the investigation, USDA officials insisted that nothing they discussed could be disclosed to the public.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she also got scanty response to her inquiries, although the USDA did acknowledge a problem with their oversight.

"They have told us that the investigation is ongoing, that it is extremely difficult to track the meat back to a specific supplier, and they have conceded that that shows a lack -- a gap in the regulatory process when they cannot trace the food," said Collins, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee agriculture subcommittee, which is responsible for the USDA's budget.

But the USDA would not say whether the contamination could reach beyond Hannaford stores, release information about the proposed rule change or the number of similar investigations in recent years. USDA officials finally agreed to a short, one-time-only interview with reporters on Jan. 27, a full 43 days after the recall was announced.

Asked about how long it took Pingree and Collins to send letters to the USDA demanding answers, consumer advocates say the lawmakers should have pressed for more information earlier, even if they can't expect to get full information immediately.

"Congress can provide a nudge in the right direction for the USDA to remember that the consuming public needs to know what is happening with the investigation while they are putting food on their table and not after the investigation is nearly completed and closed and filed," said Sarah Klein, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., and a food safety expert.

"There needs to be ongoing information to the public even if there still remain questions to be answered," she said, such as the scope of the outbreak and source of the contaminated beef.

Pingree and her spokesman, Willy Ritch, said they sent multiple informal requests for information by phone and email in the weeks after the recall was announced on Dec. 15. Frustrated with the lack of response, Pingree eventually wrote an open letter on Jan. 6 to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, asking him to provide more information to her constituents.

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