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Salmonella cases spread, source of Hannaford beef still unidentified

Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
Robert F. Bukaty | BDN
A shopper loads groceries into her car at a Hannaford's grocery store in Auburn, Maine, Friday, Dec. 16, 2011.
By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

Federal officials said Tuesday that two more people have been infected with a strain of salmonella that has been connected with ground beef sold at Hannaford supermarkets.

The number of people affected by the outbreak had been 14, federal officials indicated last week, but on Tuesday the federal Centers for Disease Control said 16 people have been affected, ranging from one person in Hawaii to four people in Maine.

According to the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, officials have been unable to determine where the contaminated beef came from. Hannaford and other supermarkets routinely blend ground meats from more than one source in order to come up with varying ratios of fat to meat in their packaged products, which can make it difficult to track where meat in a particular package came from, an FSIS spokesman said Tuesday.

Aside from the cases in Maine and Hawaii, New York and New Hampshire also each have four reported cases of illness caused by the antibiotic-resistant strain of the bacteria while Vermont, Massachusetts and Kentucky each have one, according to the CDC. The ages of the affected people range from 1 year old to 70 years old, with a median age of 45.

Ten of those people have told public health officials that they bought ground beef at Hannaford in Maine, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. Officials with Hannaford recalled all of its ground beef products with a “sell by” date of Dec. 17 or earlier. The percentage of beef in the recalled products ranges from 73 percent to 90 percent and includes Hannaford Regular, Taste of Inspirations Angus and Nature’s Place ground beef. All the affected products were blended at individual Hannaford stores where they were sold, according to officials.

Dr. Stephen Sears, Maine’s state epidemiologist, said Tuesday that other cases of salmonella in Maine have been reported, but further testing needs to be done to determine whether it is the same strain — salmonella typhimurium — and whether it can be connected with the other Hannaford ground beef cases. Such testing is expected to be done over the coming week, he added.

Sears said the four cases identified in Maine involve residents in Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Waldo counties, which suggest that the contaminated beef was purchased at multiple Hannaford stores in Maine.

“It’s often very challenging to determine where a strain comes from,” Sears said.

According to Michael Norton, spokesman for Scarborough-based Hannaford, the supermarket chain has recalled about 12,000 pounds of ground beef. Norton has indicated this week in emails that Hannaford stores had steady returns of the beef late last week, after the recall was announced, but that he did not have a good estimate for how much of the beef has been returned and refunded.

He said that aside from the “aggressive recall” of the beef, the supermarket chain is simplifying the ground beef products produced in each store and is using “an abundance of caution” in how it handles those products.

Norton said the supermarket chain follows current requirements for record keeping but does not have information on where the contaminated beef came from. He said that, based on actions the company has taken and information from USDA, Hannaford believes the contamination originated outside of its distribution and handling systems.

An FSIS spokesman said Tuesday the USDA does not require meat retailers to keep strict records of where they get their meat. Some keep more detailed records than others, he said. USDA, which oversees the production and sale of meat, poultry and certain egg products, is considering enacting new rules that would require retailers to keep more precise records of which products come from which suppliers, he said, but the new rules are still being developed and are not likely to go into effect until 2012.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest indicated Monday in a prepared statement that it has urged USDA to take stronger precautions in protecting consumers from antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella such as typhimurium. The outbreak highlights the urgent need for higher standards for record-keeping by retailers, it added.

“Consumers cannot afford to wait,” Center for Science in the Public Interest officials said in the statement. “Retailers must be responsible for keeping track of where beef is coming from so that they can assist FSIS and consumers with timely trace back during an outbreak investigation.”

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter (@billtrotter) on Twitter.

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