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On the heels of a proposal earlier this summer from USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requiring retail supermarkets to keep detailed records on meat-grinding activities for enhanced traceback procedures, the National Grocers Association (NGA), along with the American Meat Institute and the North American Meat Association, sent the agency a letter requesting for an extension for the rule's comment period.
"This proposed rule has the potential to significantly impact America's independent supermarket operators, many of whom pride themselves on providing their customers with top-quality meat markets," said Peter Larkin, NGA president and CEO. "NGA member stores commonly employ knowledgeable butchers who cut and grind ground beef fresh in-store multiple times a day, often upon a customer request."
With the public comment period for USDA's proposed meat-grinding rule set to expire on Sept. 22, 2014, Larkin continued: "These departments help differentiate independent grocers from their chain competitors. It is important for NGA to have a sufficient amount of time to appropriately gather input and data from our membership so that we are able to convey to USDA the impact this proposed rule would have on our members' store operations. NGA embraces a robust commitment of advancing policies that ensure the safety and soundness of the food supply, and we strongly believe that an extension of the comment period will result in a better informed rulemaking."
For its part, FSIS officials said the proposal aims for better record-keeping among ground meat producers "to further protect consumers by ensuring retailers can trace sources of ground meats."
In a statement, Brian Ronholm, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety, said: “The improved traceback capabilities that would result from this proposal will prevent foodborne illness by allowing FSIS to conduct recalls of potentially contaminated raw ground products in a timelier manner. By requiring retail outlets to maintain improved records on sources for ground products, the proposal will enable FSIS to quickly identify likely sources of contaminated product linked to an outbreak.”
Further, because retailers "regularly make ground beef by mixing cuts of beef from various sources," the proposal, if finalized, "will require them to keep clear records identifying the source, supplier, and names of all materials used in the preparation of raw ground beef products," according to FSIS, which went on to explain:
"When foodborne illness outbreaks occur, public health officials work to trace ground beef product back to its source so that any potentially unsafe product can be identified and removed from commerce. Traceback investigations can be hindered when retail outlets produce ground beef by mixing product from various sources but fail to keep clear records that would allow investigators to determine which supplier produced the unsafe product.
"FSIS has concluded that recordkeeping by retail facilities that grind raw beef to date, has not been sufficiently effective. In previous Federal Register notices, in the updated Food and Drug Administration Food Code, at industry meetings and in 2009 guidance provided at a retail industry association, FSIS has stressed the importance of maintaining appropriate records to aid in the identification of FSIS-regulated products associated with foodborne illnesses during recall traceback and traceforward or other food safety incidents.
"This proposal is in keeping with the agency’s latest efforts to target its food safety prevention tools at areas that will have the most significant public health impact. In December 2013, FSIS unveiled its Salmonella Action Plan, which details steps the agency can take to reduce Salmonella contamination in meat and poultry products. Salmonella causes an estimated 1.4 million foodborne illnesses per year. Included in that plan are forthcoming pathogen reduction performance standards for ground poultry and poultry parts, which will reduce Salmonella, as well as Campylobacter, in popular chicken and turkey products."