A strain of salmonella linked in the past to poultry and eggs has for the first time force a beef recall that affects customers in at least five Northeast states.
Cargill Beef is recalling more than 29,300 pounds of ground beef that it says could be tainted with salmonella. With sell by dates no later than the mid-June, the suspect meat has not been on store shelves for some time. Nevertheless, Cargill and at least one regional grocery chain are warning consumers in case some of the product remains in freezers.
On Monday, Hannaford Supermarkets alerted consumers in its five-state region – Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont – to check their freezers and return all ground beef sold at its stores between May 29 and June 16 for a full refund. Cargill Beef says some of the suspect meat also went to food distributors, who repackage the ground beef for retail sale.
The product in question is 85 percent lean, fresh, ground beef, produced on May 25 at Cargill's Wyalusing, Pa., plant, and in its wholesale form carried the establishment number "EST. 9400" on the USDA mark of inspection. But since the product was repackaged, retailers may have used their own establishment number. So far, the only retailer named by US Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is Hannaford. If federal authorities release more names, it will be released here (PDF).
The problem was traced to the Cargill plant after federal and state authorities began investigating an outbreak of 33 cases of Salmonella Enteritidis in seven East Coast states. Eleven people were hospitalized. Seventeen people reported buying ground beef from Hannaford. Five of those cases were traced back to Cargill's Pennsylvania plant. So far, Cargill has linked the bacteria to a single day of production and the plant continues to operate.
But the investigation is continuing, says an FSIS spokesman. At least four different teams of FSIS officials are investigating the facility.
Until now, this strain of the bacteria has been associated with poultry and egg recalls, says Sarah Klein, staff attorney with the food safety program of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington-based consumer advocacy group. There have been at least six instances of the strain detected in beef. But "it's the first time it has generated a recall."
The spread of Salmonella Enteritidis shouldn't force big food-safety changes in beef-processing plants. "I'm not surprised that it's gotten into other foods than just chicken and eggs," says Robert Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland in College Park. The particular strain doesn't matter so much, he adds. Beef plants "have to worry about the salmonella, period."
Cargill spokesman Mike Martin also doesn't expect big changes. "The food safety system we have in place is designed to address bacteria such as Salmonella and E.coli," he writes in an e-mail. "However, they are naturally and randomly occurring bacteria that exist throughout nature and can be elusive, despite our best efforts employing current technology."
The source of the salmonella is still unknown." We know it arrived with one or more animals," writes Mr. Martin. "Which animal(s) and how they got it remain the open questions."
This marks the second beef recall for Hannaford in less than eight months. On Dec. 15, 2011, the Scarborough, Maine, chain announced it was recalling ground beef contaminated with a different strain of salmonella. Hannaford eventually recovered more than 112,000 pounds of suspect beef, but federal investigators couldn't go further up the chain because the chain had limited records, the FSIS says.
CSPI is pushing the federal agency to require retailers to keep detailed records of the source of all the beef they grind – something some retailers already do, Ms. Klein says.