The Hannaford chain of grocery stores in the Northeast recently recalled ground beef products which were laced with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella. Like most other retail chains, Hannafords purchases all its meat from outside source slaughter plants. 

Salmonella and E. coli are  “enteric” bacterium, which is defined as originating from within animals’ intestines, and is thus present in manure.  Live beef arriving at slaughter plants frequently carry a sizeable amount of manure on their hides, creating an obvious risk during hide removal on the kill floor, where airborne enteric bacteria can easily become attached to beef carcasses.  And, when hides touch an exposed carcass, bacteria are directly deposited onto carcasses.  Retail chains, Hannaford being but one example, do not have intestines or manure-covered hides on their premises.  Therefore, we can conclude that Salmonella found in meat at retail meat markets was in all likelihood deposited onto carcasses on the kill floor, and the contamination did not occur at the retail meat market. 

Furthermore, the current recall of Hannaford meat covers seven states, with 20 reported illnesses.  The meat was processed at various Hannaford locations, in several states.  What is the probability that each of these Hannaford stores simultaneously introduced this one specific strain of Salmonella into their products, causing the outbreak?  Answer:  ZERO.  However, it does reveal that one of Hannaford suppliers suffered from a monumental breakdown in sanitary dressing procedures on its kill floor on one or more days, producing unsafe meat which was sent to the various Hannaford stores during this brief moment in time.

How does USDA view this public health dilemma?  USDA has concluded that Hannaford’s high risk practices likely lead to this outbreak.  Admittedly, Hannaford didn’t maintain grinding logs, which if used could have delineated the one source of contaminated meat.  Also, when the Hannaford meat cutters processed incoming meat, such as chucks and rounds, Hannaford kept the trimmings and put it into ground beef.  Totally legal, as the industry has done this since time immemorial.  My plant produced ground beef from trimmings for 59 years, under the watchful eye of USDA inspectors and their supervisors, none of whom objected.  Can you imagine buying a half of beef for your home freezer, only to be told that you cannot get any ground beef off that half, because USDA piously proclaims that ground beef produced from trimmings are “high risk” for bacteria?

The fact remains that if Hannaford has maintained perfect grinding logs, the outbreak would still have occurred.  The outbreak was NOT the result of a lack of grinding logs, but the presence of Salmonella in meat which Hannaford had purchased from a source slaughter provider.  And, even if Hannaford had tested the trimmings, and the lab result was negative for Salmonella, no guarantee for safe meat could be issued because labs frequently do not detect the Salmonella.  Even the largest beef slaughter plants issue disclaimers that even though their meat is tested, and tested negative, that the plants cannot issue a guarantee of safe meat because a silver bullet has not been developed to develop pathogen-free meat.  And, does USDA expect every retail meat market to conduct expensive microbial testing on every batch of ground beef produced?  Consider this fact:  the largest packers test every 10,000-lb. batch of trimmings by collecting 1 – 2 lbs. of trim for lab analysis.  It would only be equitable if every retail market tested 1 – 2 lbs. of ground beef every 10,000 lbs.  Would be quite infrequent.  What’s good for the goose (the source slaughter plant), is good for the gander (the retail meat market).

Please also note that when USDA inspectors collect ground beef samples at USDA-inspected establishments for Salmonella analysis, the agency allows up to a 7.5 percent incidence of positives before the agency will commence enforcement actions at the plant.  USDA’s aloof stance is that if only 7.5 percent of your ground beef is laced with Salmonella, consumers won’t be endangered.  However, if 8 percent or more of your ground beef has Salmonella, then, only then, will public health be imperiled.

CDC statistics show that 10 times as many Americans die from Salmonella as from E. coli.  USDA’s response to such lethal statistics?  First of all, 7.5 percent Salmonella won’t hurt anyone.  Secondly, the agency assesses all liability for Salmonella- and E.coli-laced meat to the downstream further processor, such as Hannaford.  USDA also issues a pass card to the large, source originating slaughter plants.  Only when this travesty of food safety justice is aggressively resolved will we Americans experience a lower incidence of foodborne outbreaks.

Bottom Line:  Hannaford’s processing of trim, and lack of grinding logs, did NOT introduce Salmonella into its ground beef.  Nevertheless, USDA now accuses Hannaford’s allegedly “high risk” practices to be the cause of the current outbreak.  This is but the latest in countless examples of USDA’s refusal to conduct tracebacks to the SOURCE, that is, to the large slaughter plants.  USDA’s insistence on assigning all pathogen liability to the downstream further processor virtually guarantees American consumers of future recurring outbreaks.

The link below will take you to a blog by Bill Marler, which reveals how USDA blithely blames Hannaford for this outbreak.


John Munsell oversees the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, FARE. A version of “USDA Inspected & Passed HIGH RISK Meat” was first posted on Munsell’s website on Feb. 1, 2012. Reposted with permission.