According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a total of 16 people have been infected by Salmonella Typhimurium in an outbreak linked to ground beef sold at Hannaford grocery stores in seven states. As a result, the Scarborough, Maine-based grocery chain has recalled an unknown amount of fresh ground beef products. (1)
Hannaford’s recall, however, is not without problems of its own. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has raised concerns about the grocery chain’s ability to trace the tainted beef to its source. According to FSIS:
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. This recall is being issued as part of a continuing investigation. FSIS has not yet been able to identify FSIS-regulated suppliers of raw beef ground at Hannaford Stores related to the outbreak that could be subject to recall action. (2)
The problem of supermarket record keeping encumbering an outbreak investigation is not a new issue and was recently the subject of an August 2011 study published in the Journal of Food Protection. The case study showed that tracing back ground beef to its origin might have been possible had the supermarket in the study taken two key steps:
- Kept meat from different suppliers separate, and 2. Maintained more detailed grinding records.
Researchers found that, because the supermarket chain ground and then mixed meat from multiple sources, “it is likely that individual ground beef products were routinely commingled with the next batch of ground beef, although incomplete grinding logs at some store locations hindered conclusive findings on this point.”
According to the study, food producers who grind meat on-site should know exactly where all the component parts came from, as well as record the supplier of those parts when they were ground, so that customers’ purchases can be traced back more efficiently during investigations of foodborne illness.
“Detailed grinding logs are essential for the successful traceback of contaminated beef when implicated in outbreaks and to allow focused, detailed, and prompt recalls to prevent additional infections,” says the report.
The review also pointed out that grinding outlets did not clean their meat grinders between batches, another factor that likely contributed to the commingling of contaminated beef with clean beef, and made it impossible to identify the source of the tainted meat.
Supermarkets should change their protocol to include these precautionary measures, the authors recommend.
“Hannaford had a duty to provide its customers with meat that was not tainted,” said Marler Clark Salmonella attorney William Marler. “It now owes an obligation to the pubic to release its grinding logs and names of all meat suppliers linked to Salmonella outbreak. It is only when this is done that the source of the Salmonella contamination can be discovered.”