Last summer in back-to-back outbreaks of drug-resistant strains of Salmonella, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) made history by recalling more than a 1.2 million pounds of beef.

One reason FSIS recalled beef for Salmonella contamination–for the first and second time ever–was because of information gleaned by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment from those “shopper cards” consumers use to get the best prices at grocery stores.

ground-beef14-featured.jpgBut it was not easy to get that information.  While their customers suffered from infections from Salmonella TD104 and Salmonella Newport, two nasty strains of Salmonella that resist treatment from commonly used drugs, Kroger-owned King Soopers and Safeway Stores refused to make shopper card data easily available to public health investigators.

“We ran into road block after road block,” said Shaun Cosgrove of the Colorado Health Department.  “It slowed us down and hampered our investigation.’

While speaking at the International Association for Food Protection meeting at the Anaheim Convention Center, Cosgrove referred to the retailers only as “Grocery Store Chain A and B.”   However, the names of the retailers involved in last year’s two outbreaks have been a matter of public record since FSIS announced the recalls.

Cosgrove said the two chains initially said they would provide the “Shopper Card” data only if the health department went to court and obtained a warrant for the information.   Health officials were desperate to get the information because it would show exactly what the people suffering from Salmonella symptoms had purchased and on what dates.

Colorado officials thought that information would be more accurate and persuasive with FSIS than relying on the memories of sick people.  They eventually worked out an agreement that required the ill sign release forms granting the health department access to their shopper card data.

Cosgrove said the state health department then relied upon county health officials to go after the required signatures and deliver the originals to their office in Denver when the grocery store chains refused to accept faxed copies.

Scott Seys of FSIS said it was that work by Colorado that helped bring about the historic recalls.  As something that is naturally occurring, Salmonella is not considered an “adulterant” in beef or poultry where it is almost more common than not.

In the past when Salmonella has been found in beef, it has been common for FSIS to merely issue an advisory or warning about it.

But in these two cases last year, where public health was at risk from both the Typhimurium DT104 and Newport stains of Salmonella, FSIS took the unprecedented steps of asking for recalls.  So on:

July 22, 2009, King Soopers, the Denver-based unit of the giant Kroger chain, recalled 466,236 pounds of beef for contamination with Salmonella DT104, and,

On Aug. 5, 2009, Fresno-based Beef Packers Inc. recalled 825,769 pounds of beef for contamination with drug-resistant Salmonella Newport.  The next day, in cooperation with Beef Packers, Inc.’s recall of 825,769 pounds of ground beef that may be linked to an outbreak of Salmonellosis, Safeway Inc. recalled fresh ground beef products sold between June 6 through July 14, 2009.  Safeway stores involved were in: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The Salmonella outbreaks involving ground beef were among three outbreak “case studies” presented at IAFP’s annual meeting in Anaheim.   The other two involved the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with Nestle raw cookie dough and Salmonella Rissen outbreak involving Lian How white pepper.

As for the drug-resistant Salmonella cases, spokesmen for the King Soopers and Safeway were not readily available for comment on their resistance to sharing shopper card data on customers who are suffering from foodborne illness.