Tracing back contamination

by Bernard Shire
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Industry objections to USDA's traceback plan are similar to the concerns voiced about HACCP 20 years ago.

After what has turned out to be a surprisingly long time, meat processors and retail stores that grind beef will now have to maintain records showing where they get their beef from and how these sources of beef can be contacted. That is if a proposed government rule to this effect makes it through the regulatory process.

But what industry sees as high costs being imposed on inspected meat-processing establishments and on retail stores that grind beef have drawn an outcry from three industry trade associations: the National Grocers Association (NGA), the American Meat Institute (AMI) and the North American Meat Association (NAMA).

These three associations, representing federally inspected establishments and supermarkets, asked the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) for, and received, an extension of the comment period proposed in August. The proposal would require meat processors and retailers that grind raw-beef products for sale to keep more detailed records about their beef-grinding activities, including disclosing who their suppliers are for all the material they use in preparation of each lot of raw beef. Their records must also contain contact information for these suppliers.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the regulators of the meat and poultry industry, have given the industry an extra month to advance arguments against the government plan. The three associations claim the new rules are a burden on industry. Industry says the government is underestimating the costs involved in keeping these records. And some retailers are saying the costs would prevent them from continuing to provide consumers with beef freshly ground in stores.

In particular, NGA says the proposed rule will have the greatest negative impact on independent supermarkets that are not part of national store chains. “NGA member stores employ knowledgeable butchers who cut and grind ground beef fresh in-store multiple times a day, often at customer requests,” NGA says.

The trade group wants to be able to convey to USDA the impact the rule would have on its members’ operations. In its statement, the NGA emphasized it is not backing away from its commitment to food safety, rather the trade group believes giving it and the other trade associations more time to make comments will result in a better rule to operate under.

In a sense, this reaction from the industry is nothing new. There previously have been complaints about the costs of implementing new rules and regulations because the regulated industry has to shoulder and live with those costs. Whereas the regulators, the government, impose the costs, but don’t have to shoulder the burden.

Objections include: (1) More money for new technology and recordkeeping; (2)Training of additional employees and management; and (3)Major changes in meat departments.

These industry objections sound a lot like the concerns voiced about the new HACCP rule when it was proposed almost 20 years ago. These objections to perceived costs of tracking ground-beef suppliers have as much chance of flying as did cost objections to HACCP back in 1995. After all, the idea of this proposed new rule is to make it easier to trace back sources of E. coli O157:H7 contamination in ground beef in places where most of the processing takes place. Industry may be successful in getting USDA to tweak the proposal to a degree.

If industry wants to convince the public it is concerned about its customers, especially when it comes to food safety, harping about the costs of new recordkeeping requirements may not be the best way to do it. That USDA took this step by proposing this rule is no great surprise. What is surprising is that it was so long in coming.

Bernard Shire is a contributing editor based in Lancaster, Pa. He also works as a food safety consultant with Shire and Associates.

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