September 22, 2023

Slack Record Keeping Impedes Hannaford Ground Beef Salmonella Investigation

The current Hannaford supermarkets Salmonella ground beef outbreak in the Northeast is proving to be the latest example of a nationwide food safety problem: Lack of adequate record-keeping at the retail level when stores grind beef cuts and trim into hamburger.

ground-beef-fpbThe outbreak in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts Maine has hospitalized at least seven people and infected at least seven others with Salmonella Typhimurium, a strain of bacteria that is resistant to some antibiotics.

Based on a federal examination of Hannaford’s records, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service called the records “limited” and said it was was unable to determine responsible suppliers of the beef. The agency has been tracking this problem at the supermarket level across the country for years and is pursuing rulemaking to address the concern. The issue is noted in the Hannaford recall notice generated by USDA.

In the Hannaford case as in others, identifying the FSIS-regulated suppliers of raw beef used to make hamburger could prevent other outbreaks by leading to recalls of contaminated beef sold by the suspect meatpacker.

Salmonella and E. coli in Ground Beef

Ground beef has been implicated time and again as a transmission vehicle in foodborne outbreaks of infection with Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. During outbreak investigations, traceback of contaminated beef to the producing facility is often unsuccessful because of inadequate recordkeeping at retail establishments that grind beef products.

Traceback investigators must be able to determine what products were incorporated into each batch, when the grinding occurred, where it was stored and when it was shipped to other stores within the same chain.

While establishments are required by federal law to keep bills of sales, invoices, bills of lading and receiving and shipping papers, there are currently no USDA or state require­ments to generate or maintain grinding logs.

A year ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on a survey undertaken jointly by three state health agencies. The survey, published this year in the Journal of Food Protection, showed that half of all stores kept beef grinding logs. And of the 179 grinding logs inspected, only 22 percent of records included information for all of the data elements that are needed for a traceback investigation.

Why Change is Needed

Clearly, for the sake of family food safety and consumer protection, retail supermarket chains should be required by regulation to keep grinding logs complete enough for federal traceback investigators to determine the original source of contamination in ground beef.

With effective records, products can be removed from the market in a fashion timelier and more complete, helping to prevent further cases of illness and recurrent outbreaks caused by the same source.

For instance, some investigations have found systemic causes of contamination in cutting lines and machinery at the meatpacking level. The faster an inspector is tipped off to the problem, the less cross-contamination will occur and the fewer people will be put at risk for serious illness and death.

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