The federal government is moving forward with a proposal to require grocery stores that grind beef to keep better track of all the meat they use – something that would have helped investigators identify the source of contaminated beef that sickened Hannaford customers more than a year ago.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has listed the proposed rule among nearly 200 regulatory actions it plans to send to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review.

According to the summary of the proposal, the tighter rules for ground beef would add about $20 million in labor costs for grocery stores.

It also says the change would reduce the cost of ground beef recalls, enhance investigations and reduce illnesses from an E. coli strain linked to the meat by 30 percent.

The summary says the agency expects to publish a formal proposal in the Federal Register in February, starting a two-month period for public comment. A spokesman said the USDA will not comment on the proposal before then.

The proposal is separate from a list of food safety rules proposed Friday by the Food and Drug Administration. (See related story.)

A salmonella outbreak in late 2011 that was linked to ground beef sold by the Scarborough-based Hannaford grocery chain highlighted the need for grocers to keep better records of the beef they grind.

The USDA has known for 15 years that better record-keeping is needed, to help food-safety investigators trace the source of contaminated meat and prevent more illnesses.

Hannaford’s records met federal requirements at the time of the recall. But because the records were incomplete, the USDA never could identify the source of the beef that sickened at least 20 people.

That gap in the nation’s food-safety system was highlighted by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in a special report published in March.

Since 1998, the USDA had been recommending, but not requiring, that stores keep better beef-grinding records.

Soon after the Hannaford recall, it said it had been working on a rule to require stores to record the source of all meat that they ground. It said it expected to send a detailed proposal of that rule to the Office of Management and Budget last summer or, at the latest, the end of 2012.

USDA officials would not say last month why that hadn’t happened yet or when they expected the proposal to go to the Office of Management and Budget.

The summary posted Dec. 21 on the office’s Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions is the first indication that the next step could be coming soon.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine said she urged the USDA last month to establish the record-keeping regulations.

She said she is “glad that the USDA is taking this step and has released this draft rule,” and believes it will “lead to increased consumer confidence in the safety of their food.”

However, Pingree said she is concerned about how the rule could affect small farmers and direct-to-consumer retailers. She said she wants to hear from them and encourage them to speak up during the public comment period.

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Press Herald/Telegram.

The comment period will give industry advocates and the public a chance to say whether they see the proposed rule as too burdensome or too lax.

If the Office of Management and Budget does not find substantive objections, a draft final rule will be developed and the review and comment process will be repeated within the office and the USDA.

If the rule is adopted, retailers will likely get time to comply.

Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights group, said the process could take longer if the grocery industry strongly opposes the rule.

According to its summary, the USDA estimates that the record-keeping requirements would affect 76,390 stores and cost them $20.5 million in labor costs to develop, record and maintain so-called grinding logs.

The Food Marketing Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that represents more than 1,500 food retailers and wholesalers, would not comment on the USDA’s projected impact on the industry.

Spokesman Heather Garlich said the association is “watching and waiting” for the complete rule to make its way to the Office of Management and Budget.

Shelley Doak, executive director of the Maine Grocers Association, said she doesn’t know how stores in the state would be affected by the rule, which she would not comment on.

She said there are about 350 grocery stores in the state, but she did not know how many grind beef.

Hannaford, which voluntarily improved its record-keeping after the recall, has said the changes have added one to two hours of work for an employee in each of its meat departments. The chain has more than 180 stores in five states.

Hannaford spokesman Mike Norton said Friday that the company supports the USDA’s proposed rule. “It enhances food safety, and it’s consistent with our practice,” he said.

Nick Vacchiano, a butcher at Pat’s Meat Market in Portland, could not quantify how much work the extra record-keeping would add at his store. Depending on the final rule, it could mean recording the source of all meat in each batch of ground beef, which could come from more than a dozen animals.

“Would it be feasible? It would be more difficult,” he said. “Basically one more thing you have to do during the day.”

But whatever requirements the USDA has, Vacchiano said, his store will comply.

The agency points out in its proposal that while stores might pay more in labor costs, the rule could save money in other areas.

It anticipates that more efficient recalls could save $3.6 million a year, and that the 30 percent reduction in foodborne illness from one strain of E. coli could save $23.4 million a year.

The USDA also notes that the rule could increase consumer confidence and reduce the amount of meat that’s recalled, although it did not project the monetary value of those benefits.

The timing of the rule-making process is uncertain.

The Office of Management and Budget must review the proposal before it is presented for public comment. At the same time, the USDA indicated that the public comment period could start in February.

That means the USDA must be planning to send a detailed proposal to the Office of Management and Budget this month, said Corbo of Food and Water Watch.

“Normally, it would take OMB up to 90 days to review a rule, so either they think it will not take OMB that long to review the proposed rule or USDA’s projection is a bit optimistic,” Corbo said.

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

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