Header graphic for print
Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Hannaford should release its grinding logs and names of all meat suppliers linked to Salmonella Typhimurium Outbreak


hannaford-logo.jpgAs of this week, according to the CDC, a total of 16 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium have been reported from Hawaii (1), Kentucky (1), Massachusetts (1), Maine (4), New Hampshire (4), New York (4), and Vermont (1).  In response to those illnesses Hannaford, a Scarborough, Maine-based grocery chain, recalled an undetermined amount of fresh ground beef products that may be contaminated with Salmonella Typhimurium, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced last week.  However, FSIS raised concerns about its 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.

A study in August 2011 edition of the Journal of Food Protection showed that tracing back the ground beef to its origin might have been possible had the supermarket studied taken two key steps: 

1. 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.” 

Food producers who grind meat on-site should know exactly where all the batches came from, as well as record when they were ground, so that customers’ purchases can be traced back more efficiently during investigations of foodborne illness, the study suggests.

“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 comingling 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.  It now owes an obligation to the pubic at large 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.

According to the CDC, most persons infected with Salmonella bacteria develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most persons recover without treatment. However, in some persons, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the bloodstream and then to other body sites and can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. Older adults, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness from Salmonella infection.

  • John Munsell

    Whew, this is a multi-headed hydra which cannot be adequately discussed in one or two dismissive paragraphs. Here we go:
    First of all, prior to my recall of 270# of ground beef for E.coli O157:H7 in 2002, I did not maintain grinding logs. Actually, I wasn’t familiar with the protocol. I had also assumed that my miniscule plant would NEVER be impacted by an E.coli recall. Never happen to me. I thought, only a handful of large plants could ever be impacted. Well, I found out the hard way that ignorance is no excuse, as have dozens of other plants and some retailers such as Hannafords. My guess is that most of the Hannaford stores did not maintain grinding logs. Those that did should be glad to divulge them to the public, in hope of finding a common link which might indicate the source slaughter plant which sold Hannafords the meat which was already laced with invisible Salmonella bacteria.
    It is important to realize that commingling meat is frequently necessary! Take my plant for example. We used boneless bull meat (at least 95% lean), 50/50 trim (only 50% lean), boneless cow trim (could be 65 – 90% lean), and trimmings from processing boxed beef. Boxed beef trimmings (also called Bench Trim) has a wide range of lean %’s, say from 50% – 90%. Grinding plants must commingle meats of different lean/fat ratios in order to produce ground beef adequate to meet consumer demands. Grinding straight 50/50 trim would produce greasy beef sausage impossible to market.
    It is essential that we all realize that commingling trimmings does not INTRODUCE bacteria into ground beef! If some of the trimmings harbor bacteria, the process of commingling does spread the bacteria throughout the rest of the commingled batch. Those who suggest that we not commingle meats unwittingly endorse an environment which would require tons of perfectly good meat to be sent to landfills or rendering daily. Why? Consumers don’t want to buy ground beef which is made exclusively from bull meat, 98% lean. Or burger which is made exclusively from 50/50 trim, an unpalatable greasy sausage. And if we did force our domestic processors to destroy fat trim, we would increase our demand for imported meat, while adversely impacting our domestic beef industry.
    Anyone who has purchased a half of beef for their home freezer realizes that processing locker beef (and boxed beef) automatically produces boneless trimmings destined for ground beef. We all know that when we process a half beef or boxed beef, that not all of the meat ends up as steaks and roasts. Frankly, trimmings are an automatic and legal part of the processing protocol. Burger is an all-American favorite, totally legal & ethical. The grinding process does NOT introduce pathogens, regardless of whether the grind consists of single source meat, or commingled meat from various sources.
    It behooves us to ferret out a culprit in this public health imbroglio, in order to understand that we have an enemy more heinous than pathogens.
    USDA/FSIS officials themselves have opined that Bench Trim, that is, trimmings which are produced when boxed beef (chucks, rounds, sirloins, etc) are processed into steaks and roast, are “HIGH RISK”. Huh? How can this be? FSIS officials unwittingly admit thereby that boxed beef sent into commerce, in boxes proudly displaying the USDA Mark of Inspection (which states USDA Inspected & Passed), carries an inappropriately high load of E.coli & Salmonella. Both bacteria are “Enteric”, meaning they originated from within animals’ intestines and on manure-covered hides. These enteric bacteria are INTRODUCED into the food chain on the kill floor, where intestines and manure-covered hides exist. Hannafords has NO intestines or hides at their establishments.
    The highest-speed slaughter plants are utilized by the largest packers, which include the Big Four, which collectively kill 88% of our feedlot-finished steers and heifers. These plants have HACCP Plans (which FSIS has deems acceptable) which include multiple-hurdle pathogen intervention systems, allegedly capable of reducing bacterial loads from live animals to carcass beef by 6 – 7 logs. Good golly, we should be able to eat such meat RAW! These monster abattoirs are to be commended for the multiple millions they’ve invested in devising and implementing state-of-the-art production protocol which theoretically sanitize carcasses.
    Slaughter plants then break down the carcasses into individual pieces, such as chucks, ribs, tenderloins, etc. The pieces are individually vacuum-packed, boxed, and shipped into commerce as boxed beef. Since FSIS accepts HACCP Plans at these slaughter plants as being acceptable, and allows the packers to label the meat with USDA’s official Mark of Inspection, consumers “should” have confidence in the safety of the meat.
    But, the fact still remains that FSIS considers trimmings emanting from further processing of boxed beef to be “High Risk”. Folks, this is a sham, for which FSIS is not ashamed. The agency is fully cognizant of the presence of lethal pathogens on meat which is being allowed to be shipped into commerce. Instead of aggressively tracing back to the SOURCE of contamination, FSIS prefers to assess liability downstream, at retailers like Hannafords, restaurants such as Sizzlers, and of course, we stupid consumers because we don’t fully cook the invisible bacteria. This artfully dodges the issue of cross-contamination in the kitchen.
    If retailers and meat plants would maintain complete grinding logs, and IF (don’t hold your breath, as this deserves a story of its own) FSIS would accept such evidence, then public health officials’ epidemiological attempts to trace back to the source would greatly benefit.
    But grinding logs have potential shortcomings, which we should discuss. As mentioned above, if meat is commingled, and the burger is positive for E.coli or Salmonella, all we know is that 3 or 4 different plants may have sold unsafe meat to the grinding plant. Solution: whenever ground beef samples are collected for microbial analysis, all efforts should be taken to produce burger from a single source grind. However, some folks would call “Foul”! Why? Because such sampling would not be “random”. My response: what god do we serve? A devotion to a true definition of random sampling, or devotion to determining the true SOURCE of contamination?
    On our busiest of days, my plant performed a dozenor more grinds in our little grinders which could do 250# per batch. We had two grinders connected together: the first did the coarse grind, and the second did the finished, fine grind. Can you imagine the practical difficulties involved with a mandated cleaning and sanitizing of grinding equipment between each grind? Not possible. Same is true at the huge source slaughter plants, and at retail meat markets. Furthermore, I ask you WHY should grinders have to wash and sanitize all equipment between every grind? After all, all their meat was sourced from USDA-Inspected Establishments, and the meat was INSPECTED & PASSED by USDA!
    Hopefully you’re now realizing that USDA intentionally allows the large slaughter plants to ship into commerce pathogen-laced meat which was NOT inspected, but did indeed pass. This is an unintended consequence of USDA-style HACCP, aka deregulation (but only at the big packers).
    Some other considerations:
    1. FSIS allows slaughter plants to ship into commerce intact cuts of meat which are “only” surface-contaminated with E.coli O157:H7. The agency counters that the pathogens become adulterants only AFTER the meat is further processed into non-intact cuts, such as ground beef and cube steaks. Could be part II of “Dumb & Dumber”.
    2. On January 26, 1998, the largest plants implemented HACCP. Six days later, on February 1, 1998, FSIS issued Directive 10,010.1 which exempted the large plants from agency-conducted sampling! Self-policing is science based, you know. What the agency doesn’t know, won’t hurt it. May kill consumers, but the agency wants its head in the sand.
    3. When I filed suit against FSIS to change its policies, part of the agency’s legal response was that FSIS prefers to conduct its testing “As close to the consumer as possible”. While this sounds good, the agency is not admitting that such testing is as far away from the source slaughter plant as possible.
    4. FSIS policies have erected artificial barriers which have historically prevented tracebacks to the source slaughter plants. Ashamed of this intentional circumvention of liability, USDA Sec Tom Vilsack stated in an August 3 speech in Milwaukee “In 90 days, I expect the agency to announce the first step in transforming our traceback policy”. End quote. Although today is day # 141, FSIS has for some reason not been able to even author a “First Step” in improving its traceback policies. FSIS is protecting an entity, but it’s not Public Health.
    First of all, grinding logs not only make sense, but they protect the grinder. In this case, Hannafords will be stuck with all medical and legal expenses, because it did not implement grinding logs which could have proven the true slaughter plant SOURCE of contamination. Maintaining such logs requires manhours, the total cost of which is much less than subsequent medical and legal costs.
    Secondly, sampling & testing protocol must be devised which would allow an expedited and science-based determination of the true SOURCE of contamination, not designed to reveal the DESTINATION, which is what FSIS prefers.
    All samples collected should be taken from a grinder which had not performed previous grinds earlier in the day. Reason: a previous grind will deposit residual bacteria into the equipment, potentially contaminating a subsequent grind from which a sample is collected. In such a case, if the subsequent sample is contaminated, we don’t know the true origin of contamination.
    FSIS policies allow for advance notification to the plant prior to a sample being collected by an inspector. I fully endorse this policy. This allows a plant to (a) start with a clean grinder, (b) grind single-source product, and (c) ensure that the meat being ground and tested is a new lot, that is, is not part of a lot which had previously been partially processed, ground and shipped into commerce. This prevents rolling Recalls. And (d) allows for thorough documentation of all source evidence.
    Commingling trim sources does not INTRODUCE pathogens! These invisible pathogens are introduced in incoming shipments of meat sourced from slaughter providers. Commingling must be allowed, but should be greatly discouraged when samples are collected for lab analysis.
    FSIS must energetically embrace and implement policy changes which aggressively pursues successful tracebacks to the SOURCE. This will be the largest obstacle of all. Bottom line: who has the largest budget for legal fees: Hannafords, or the largest packers? Frankly, FSIS is paralyzed with fear of litigation stemming from the largest packers if the agency were ever audacious enough to attempt meaningful enforcement actions at the SOURCE, and to require the source to implement viable corrective actions. FSIS is much more comfortable to ignore the source, and target small downstream entities which are much easier prey.
    Lastly, FSIS must accept evidence for what it is………evidence! Such data should promote public health considerations, and the agency must be denied the opportunity to cover up evidence. Case in point: when inspection personnel at my plant documented the origin of meat which produced 3 E.coli positives at my plant, and I went public, FSIS hierarchy had 3 comments:
    “The data was personal opinion”
    “The data was heresay”
    “The inspectors were not allowed to document the information”.
    Bottom line: until FSIS is forced to use science-based test protocol, willingly accepts evidence, is willing to initiate unrestricted traceback investigations, and most importantly, Force the Source to clean up its act, even if every retail meat market and processing plant in this country maintains superlative grinding logs, we will still experience ongoing outbreaks. Grinding logs are only one tool in our Food Safety arsennal, a tool which FSIS claims to endorse, but has historically circumvented.
    I repeat: pathogens are not the primary enemy of public health. FSIS is! If USDA Sec Tom Vilsack is incapable of forcing FSIS into accountability, he needs to be replaced. Grinding logs are not the ultimate answer, government accountability is.
    Don’t hold your breath.
    John Munsell

  • Minkpuppy


    I’ve always understood that the reason we highly discourage commingling of trimmings in our circuit is to make it easier to identify the source supplier. If bench trimmings from 3 or 4 suppliers are mixed, it makes it a lot tougher to trace where the contaminated beef came from. We also encourage (not mandate) single source suppliers for each grind lot. I think most of our plants do a cleanup of the grinders whenever they switch suppliers as a safeguard especially when they are also grinding imported beef.

    However, I’m learning our circuit and district does things a lot different than the district you were in. We have mostly small plants here and I’ve experienced none of the antagonism for them that the Agency in Montana exhibits. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around what you experienced–the district here would have our hides if we acted like that. (I like my hide and want to keep it ;-) )

    Our FLS also explained to me that plants using their own bench trim from boxed beef could be problematic if they didn’t keep detailed records of all the suppliers of the beef they cut that day in addition to keeping the trimmings seperated from each other by supplier. Also, they will want to consider testing each batch of their trimmings which is even more time consuming and costly. Most of them just don’t want to deal with it, so they mix their trimmings together and send them to companies that are using them in fully cooked products. They receive confirmation that the trimmings are cooked and it reduces a lot of worries.

  • John Munsell

    Dear Minkpuppy: Most processing plants, including mine, depend on the ability to use trimmings for ground beef production as part of its revenue stream to keep their heads above water. Ain’t it a shame that such legitimate commercial activities are more discouraged every day, even though the source meat was initially “USDA Inspected & Passed”.
    When plants are determining if E.coli is a hazard likely to occur, any plant which purchases boxed beef from large source slaughter plants should ethically say “Yes”. Why? Because not only does FSIS allow intact meat which is “ONLY” surface contaminated with adulterants to be shipped into commerce, but the agency also contends that trimmings produced by processing the boxed beef is “High Risk”.
    Minkpuppy, FSIS is not a friend of consumers.
    John Munsell