SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Hannaford Bros. here has revised its record-keeping to facilitate trace-back to the original source after its ground beef was implicated in an multi-state outbreak of illness caused by Salmonella Typhimurium.
The grocery chain in December voluntarily recalled all its ground beef after information revealed that several people who had purchased ground beef from Hannaford stores had become ill. The Class I recall was in connection with a food safety investigation initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cooperating with the CDC and USDA in their investigation, Hannaford stopped grinding beef trim while it made changes that included more extensive record-keeping, Eric Blom, the 179-unit chain’s director of external communications, told SN last week.
“We simplified the process by temporarily not grinding trim while we added practices for capturing additional details in the record that facilitates trace-back,” Blom said.
“Since then, we have resumed the grinding of trim and have added more detail to the foundation of records we keep. These additional details help with trace-back to the original source.”
Meanwhile, the CDC and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service division have closed their investigation without having found the original source of the Salmonella.
“A total of 20 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium were reported from seven states, and collaborative investigative efforts of state, local, and federal public health and regulatory agencies indicated that this outbreak was linked to eating ground beef purchased from Hannaford Supermarkets,” CDC states on its website.
Seven people were hospitalized but no deaths were reported.
Earlier this month, in what the agency describes as its “final update” on the subject, the CDC stated that “this particular outbreak appears to be over,” but goes on to caution that Salmonella is an important cause of illness in the United States and gives consumers advice on how to avoid it.
An FSIS spokesman pointed out that:
“On January 27, FSIS conducted a press briefing to go over its activities since initiation of the December recall. At that time, it was stated that barring discovery of any substantial, new information we would be closing the investigation in coming days and more than likely not be able to move beyond the store as a source of the contamination because of its record-keeping and grinding practices.”
In its original news release, at the time of the ground beef recall, FSIS said: “Based on an examination of Hannaford’s limited records, FSIS was unable to determine responsible suppliers. FSIS recently identified this problem at the retail level and is pursuing rulemaking to address the concern.”
With the investigation by CDC, FSIS and state and local agencies coming to a close, the onus is left on Hannaford “whose limited records” hampered traceback to the original sources.
There are industry sources who take issue with a system that puts undue responsibility on the end user, the retailer — in this case, Hannaford Bros. — instead of pursuing aggressive methods to identify the original source of contamination.
Former meat processor John Munsell, manager of the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement in Miles City, Mont., says the system is flawed. Since Salmonella Typhimurium, as well as E. coli 0157, are classified as enteric bacteria, meaning they originate in the animal’s intestine, logic would dictate that the point of original contamination is at the slaughterhouse, he said.
Munsell has written extensively on the subject and has testified at agency hearings.
In an interview last week, Munsell, referring to the Hannaford recall and also to others in the past, criticized a system that hammers retailers and secondary processors and then doesn’t make a serious effort to identify the original source of contamination.
“First, the retailer’s name is in the news, and then the processor is next,” Munsell said in an earlier interview.
Last week, Munsell told SN that certainly retailers have a responsibility “to keep copious grind records.”
While Hannaford was doing nothing outside the law, their records could have been more detailed, which would have facilitated trace-back.
In addition to recommending retailers keep very detailed grind records, Munsell also suggested that retailers avoid the practice of commingling trim from different sources whenever possible.
“It would mean minimizing the number of sources in a particular grind,” Munsell said, “and that would increase the frequency of grinding.”
More costly, but it would save money in the long run if an outbreak should occur.