March 26, 2012

Silent treatment: USDA frustrates Maine lawmakers during outbreak

By Jonathan Riskind jriskind@mainetoday.com
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.

"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:

jriskind@mainetoday.com

Twitter: MaineTodayDC

 

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