December 23, 2011

OUR OPINION: Too little info about probe of tainted meat

A week after Hannaford supermarkets pulled suspect ground beef from their shelves, Maine consumers still have questions.

What was the source of the salmonella poisoning that sickened 16 people, including four in Maine?

How do we know that all of the tainted supply has been identified? How do we know it is limited to ground beef sold in only one supermarket chain?

Unfortunately, the federal agency charged with providing this information has been silent for the most part, refusing requests for information, saying only that the matter is under investigation.

That is not good enough.

A spokesman for the agency has claimed that Hannaford's "limited records" were slowing the progress, but there is no indication that the company has done anything wrong.

It was the supermarket chain that took the meat off its shelves and informed the public about the problem. It has complied with all record-keeping rules, and has made them available to the federal agency.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has criticized the USDA for its closed-mouth response to this outbreak, and she is right. If the record-keeping requirements are inadequate to protect the public, then the agency should speak up so the law can be changed.

The centralization of meat processing has created opportunities for outbreaks of food poisoning on epidemic scale. With much of the nation's meat going through centralized slaughterhouses and processing plants, the chances of cross-contamination are greater than ever.

Public safety and public confidence in the food supply demand that investigations into food poisoning outbreaks be conducted quickly and transparently. Shielding the industry from bad publicity should take a back seat to getting the truth out.

And if the truth is that we don't know where the contamination came from or how widespread it really is, that message should be made clear, so that consumers have the information that they need to protect themselves.

If the USDA needs better records to do that part of the job, it should have them. But slow investigations with little communication with the public do not serve consumers or the industry.

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