Ground beef from unknown number of cows

The USDA has yet to find the source of contamination for beef that has sickened 16 people with a strain of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella. Last week, Hannaford grocery stores recalled ten types of possibly-contaminated beef products with sell-by dates of Dec. 17, 2011 or earlier. The USDA is investigating the outbreak, but has little to work with based on the grocer’s records of where the meat came from.

The traceback investigation is hindered by the fact that Hannaford, like many chain grocers, makes its own packages of ground beef. Stores are not required by law to keep track of the origins of the meat that goes into each batch. Meat from several different farms or packing plants went into the contaminated ground beef, which was packaged and sold over two months this Fall at Hannaford stores throughout Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), an organic farm owner and member of the House Agricultural Affairs Committee, is pressing the USDA for answers. She emphasizes that Hannaford’s record-keeping was in compliance with industry standards, and describes the ambiguous beef-packing standards as a “big system problem.” She puts the spotlight on weak record-keeping requirements, one common factor in a number of stalled investigations of food-borne illness. The USDA is “pursuing rule-making to address the concern,” but for now this case can only go as far up the supply chain as Hannaford.

Diagnostic tests run by public health investigators from CDC determined that “the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium is resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics.” Seven people were hospitalized and no deaths have been reported.

image: danieljordahl

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