March 26, 2012

Silent treatment: USDA frustrates Maine lawmakers during outbreak

By Jonathan Riskind
Washington Bureau Chief

(Continued from page 1)

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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"The public has a right to know the steps that USDA is taking to trace the origins of any contaminated beef as well as some historical information to allow consumers to put this investigation into context," wrote Pingree. "People hear about these things and they want to know more information."

Collins, too, wrote a letter to the USDA, on Jan. 17, more than a month after the recall was announced.

"I want to make sure that the FSIS is taking all necessary and appropriate steps in responding to this incident, including evaluating the adequacy of current inspection and record-keeping requirements," she wrote. In response, the USDA reiterated that they were working on tougher record-keeping requirements and would keep her posted.

A summary of the proposed new grinding log rule was released on Jan. 20, and the USDA said it expects to release the full description of the proposed rule this summer. Collins plans to quiz the agency on that process when the USDA budget request comes before the Senate Appropriation Committee's agriculture subcommittee this spring.

Pingree said this was the first food safety issue she's dealt with since becoming an active member of the agriculture committee in January 2011.

The Hannaford case was "a good lesson for us in how many problems there are with the actual system of determining where all this originates ... and some of those seem to be problems with the system whether you are a committee member or not," Pingree said.

"It's not that easy to get the information."

Federal investigators told Pingree's office that their briefing had to be confidential because some information might be proprietary and the investigation was ongoing.

Pingree's office reluctantly agreed.

"It wasn't our idea and would have preferred that it wasn't, but they made it a condition of the briefing," Ritch said.

The USDA can go to extremes to keep even basic information about an investigation secret because they are afraid they might say something that could expose the agency to legal liability, such as wrongly identifying a specific supplier of being the source of contamination, consumer advocates say.

"That (type of secrecy) is sort of standard operating procedure when they do briefings during an investigation," said Chris Waldrop, who directs the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. "When the investigation is still open they are usually really careful about what they say and how they frame things."

In the end, the condition of secrecy seemed unnecessary: They didn't learn anything new, Pingree said.

But she, like Collins, will eventually have USDA officials before her committee. When that happens, Pingree plans to press them on their progress on mandating grinding logs for retailers, she said. If the USDA doesn't adopt stricter regulations, she says she plans to introduce legislation requiring it.

"I am sure we will dig in a little further when we get another month or two down the road and see what their progress is," she said. "They know we're interested so I think we will continue to talk to them about it."

Pingree is married to Donald S. Sussman, a financier, philanthropist and frequent Democratic donor who recently purchased a stake in MaineToday Media through Maine Values LLC. MaineToday Media owns and operates the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.

Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

Twitter: MaineTodayDC


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