The federal government is poised to publish a proposed consumer-protection rule that would require all processors of raw ground beef to keep records so retailers can better trace the sources of contaminated products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday.

The rule is designed to minimize the number of people affected by food-borne illnesses like the 2011 salmonella outbreak that was linked to ground beef sold by the Scarborough-based Hannaford supermarket chain. Hannaford’s records met federal requirements at the time, but because the records were incomplete, the USDA couldn’t identify the source of the beef that sickened at least 20 people.

That gap in the nation’s food-safety system was the focus of a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram special report, “Anatomy of a Recall,” published in March 2012. The investigation found that the USDA had known since 1998 that better record-keeping was needed to help food-safety investigators trace sources of contaminated meat and prevent additional illnesses.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has now concluded that record-keeping “has not been sufficiently effective” among grocery stores and other retailers that regularly make ground beef using meat from various sources, according to Wednesday’s news release.

The proposed rule would require retailers to keep clear and detailed “grinding logs” that identify the source, supplier and names of all materials used in the preparation of raw ground beef products.

“The improved trace-back capabilities that would result from this proposal will prevent food-borne illness by allowing (the Food Safety and Inspection Service) to conduct recalls of potentially contaminated raw ground products in a timelier manner,” said Brian Ronholm, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food safety.

The proposed rule was posted Wednesday on the Food Safety and Inspection Service website and will be published soon in the Federal Register. Interested parties will have 60 days to submit written comments before the agency moves ahead with formalizing the rule.

Better record-keeping is expected to reduce illnesses from an E. coli strain linked to ground beef by 30 percent. It is also expected to lower the cost of ground beef recalls and enhance investigations.

The USDA has estimated that improved record-keeping requirements would affect 76,390 stores and cost them a total of $20.5 million per year in added labor costs to develop, record and maintain grinding logs.

Hannaford recalled 17,000 pounds of ground beef in December 2011, after an outbreak of salmonella typhimurium that sickened at least 20 people, 12 of whom reported eating Hannaford beef in the week before symptoms appeared. The source of the tainted meat was never identified.

Hannaford voluntarily improved its record-keeping after the recall. Company spokesman Eric Blom said the supermarket chain has implemented an electronic tracking system that ensures all sources of the beef ground in its stores are identified and recorded.

“It provides the records USDA wants to have available from all retailers,” Blom said in a prepared release. “We believe this system is industry-leading and a model that can be pursued by others.”

Blom noted that the proposed USDA rule offers guidance for supermarkets and would create consistency among retailers.

Since 1998, the USDA has recommended – but not required – that stores keep better beef-grinding records.

After the 2011 Hannaford recall, the USDA said it had been working on a rule to require stores to record the source of all meat that they grind.

“The fact that this rule has seen the light of day is promising,” said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights group.

“This is a huge hole in the USDA’s ability to do trace-back,” Corbo said Wednesday. “I need to take a good, hard look at the proposed rule to see if there are any loopholes and provide comment.”

Corbo said it was the 2011 Hannaford recall and the Press Herald/Telegram’s coverage of the issue that pushed the USDA to finally take action. He also credited U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, with raising the alarm and keeping pressure on at the national level.

“This is something we have been pushing hard for and I’m glad regulators have agreed it’s necessary,” Pingree said Wednesday in a prepared statement.

“The voluntary guidelines that have been in place were just not sufficient when contaminated ground beef ended up in the grocery store,” Pingree said. “But I do want to look at the proposed rules carefully to make sure they don’t put an unreasonable burden on small producers who have not been part of the problem in the first place.”

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

Local retailers have said it would take more time to record beef sources, but they would comply with USDA rules.

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