WASHINGTON — A federal health inspection official said Wednesday that new federal rules sought by lawmakers after a 2011 salmonella outbreak in Maine are still probably months away from completion.

It’s been more than a year since the outbreak — linked to meat sold at Hannaford supermarkets — helped expose problems in the way stores handle and keep track of the various sources of meat used in ground beef or other ground products.

The incident, which sickened about 20 people in Maine and six other states, added urgency to a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule already in the works that would require stores to record the source of all the meat they grind to help investigators identify the supplier of any tainted meat. USDA officials had said they hoped to complete their work on the proposed rule by the end of 2012.

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.

On Wednesday, a USDA official told a congressional panel that the rules are still in development.

“It’s always hard to give a firm timeline, but this is a priority policy for us,” said Elizabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “We hope to have a proposal ready to head over to the Office of Management and Budget in the next few months.”

The Office of Management and Budget then would have 90 days to review the rules’ potential effects, but the agency also could seek an extension.

Hagen’s answer came in response to questions from U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, about when the new rules would be ready.

“For us, it’s been 15 months since that last outbreak; and back in my home state, people are saying, ‘Hey, did you ever fix that problem?'” Pingree asked during the House Appropriations subcommittee meeting.

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Kenebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

Hagen did not provide any additional explanation for the delay. However, she said the agency believes that the rules are necessary. The USDA also is working to take into account concerns about how a rule could affect stores of different sizes, she said.

“We have been working with the regulated industry for some time to try to find ways to do this voluntarily,” Hagen said. “We do think it is time that a requirement be codified.”

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 2012.

The USDA has estimated that the proposed rule would affect more than 76,000 stores nationwide at a cost of $20.5 million, largely as a result of the increased labor of keeping track of different meat sources. In the case of ground beef, for example, many stores receive tubes of coarsely ground meat that are then ground again. Some stores also use trimmings from steaks and other cuts of beef, but current rules do not require stores to record the various sources of that beef.

The USDA also anticipates the rule probably would increase consumer confidence and result in more efficient recalls, an estimated $3.6 million savings. In addition, the agency projects a 30 percent reduction in foodborne E. coli illness, a $23.4 million savings.

Hannaford improved its record-keeping practices soon after the salmonella outbreak and now follows the rules proposed by the USDA in order to address concerns.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
[email protected]
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC


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