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Q&A With 'Meatpacking Maverick' Munsell

PART II: More of our conversation with John Munsell, the small meat processor who blew the whistle on the largest meat recall in American history. See Part I of the interview here.

John Munsell, dubbed the “meatpacking maverick” by Mother Jones, has spent much of his life on the front lines of food safety. 

In 2002, Munsell told the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that his small meat grinding operation had been receiving E. coli-positive beef from ConAgra’s massive plant in Greeley, Colorado and that something needed to be done about it.  Instead of launching an investigation into the Greeley plant, the USDA shut down Munsell’s business for four months after an agency inspector collected a positive E. coli sample from ground beef produced in his plant.

A few months later, the Greeley plant recalled 19 million pounds of beef after an E. coli outbreak that sickened 45 people in 23 states was tied to its product. Over 80 percent of the recalled meat had already been consumed by the public by the time USDA announced the recall in the Summer of 2002.

Munsell operated his small-scale USDA-inspected meat plant in Montana for 34 years. The business had been in his family for almost six decades when he sold it in 2005 after becoming fed up with USDA politics and ‘burdensome’ federal regulations.

Food Safety News had a chance to chat with Munsell about the ConAgra outbreak, the current state of meat regulation, and what he thinks should be done to improve food safety.

Part II

Q: Knowing what you do about meat production, do you consume meat that comes from the big packing houses?

A: We still buy halves of beef from the local meat plant, in fact, from the plant I used to own. So the only ground beef that we will buy will be from the local meat plant. Now on a occasion, if I want some ribeye steaks, you almost have to end up with steaks that originated with a big packer. All the chicken we eat comes from the big packers. 

Q: Do you think the regional/local food trends are positive developments? Can smaller facilities be better at controlling food safety problems?

A: I think more people are buying local. I think more people would like to buy local, but don’t know where they can. At the same time, more and more livestock producers want to sell niche livestock. For example, Made in Montana, or Certified Iowa Angus, or certified no additives, or no hormones, or no antibiotics. At the same time there are more people who want to sell that, to sell to those kinds of people you were just describing–these small, local or regional markets. There is a huge increase in livestock producers that want to access that market.

At the same time, there is a large decrease in the number of inspected plants that are available to do that. HACCP has just decimated  the ranks of small plants nationwide.

More and more of these small plant operators are just tired of the ongoing administrative hassle and the USDA intimidation in trying to keep up with all the most recent increased demands for HACCP.  I finally said ‘heck with it, this has nothing to do with food safety, but its giving me heartburn and stress.  I’m just getting out of it.’

I think you’re right, a lot of people want to buy local, they don’t want to have to buy something from Tyson. But all of the sudden, the number of local plants that are doing this is dwindling.

Q: Have you been following the small farmer, small producer opposition to the food safety bills in Congress that would apply to FDA-regulated products?

A: Yeah, I’ve been following it somewhat. I am totally opposed to those bills.

Q: Totally opposed?

A: Because those bills portray HACCP as the ultimate solution.  Whereas, in my mind, HACCP is the major problem facing food safety and meat production today.  Internationally, if nations want to trade with each other, they all have to subscribe to this HACCP ideal, which is a joke. 

HACCP has resulted in deregulation of the huge multinational slaughter plants who absolutely enjoy the freedom that HACCP gives them, but at the same time HACCP has enabled governments to hyper regulate small plants, putting some of these small plants out of business. Not because they cannot produce a safe product, but because they simply run out of time and money to implement this horrendous paper chase. 

You know, HACCP was originally described as a pathogen-chase, ‘let’s case down these pathogens, and get rid of em.’ Well, no longer is it a pathogen-chase, it’s a paper chase.

It would seemingly indicate that if a meat plant is successful at producing safe food the way you can prove that success is by this paper chase.

Well, every plant, every human being can produce whatever kind of paperwork the government authorities want that would seemingly prove that that plant is producing safe food.  HACCP is a wolf in lambs clothing.

These bills, both on the House side and the Senate side, portray HACCP as being the ultimate resolution and it’s not. If those bills passed, more and more small and independent, local food producers, whether its meat or poultry or cheese or lettuce, they are just going to go out of business. There is expense involved in doing it.

For example, before HACCP, I thoroughly enjoyed my meat business. I looked forward to going to work, because all we did was work, and we produced safe food. After HACCP, we were primarily producing paperwork. The USDA continued to hound us, hassle us, with ‘well, you forgot to dot this ‘i’ or cross this ‘t.’

Paperwork errors like that, in the eyes of the USDA, constituted major failures in the HACCP plans.  It had nothing to do with food safety.

Q: Well, these bills only apply to FDA-regulated products–lettuce, cheese, bagged salad, those kinds of things. The FDA operates rather differently than than the USDA does… Do you think it’s possible for a government agency to require HACCP-like regulations so that they aren’t crushing to small business, but helpful for public health?

A: First of all, if a different agency took over all inspection of food, the only way it would work is if we said that no one in the USDA could apply for work for the new agency. A government regulatory agency cannot be hands-off, they have to be hands-on.

They have to be given the right to police the industry and to take actions when problems occur. 

Q: What do you think is the appropriate level of government regulation for small producers?

A: Well first of all, there is a federal law that states that any meat that’s being sold has to be inspected. For example, if you go to a local grocery store, all the meat in the meat counter has to come from a federal- or state-inspected plant, and I think that’s good.

Now, before HACCP, small plants could operate and survive and thrive. After HACCP, it’s become almost impossible.

I have no problem with an inspector being at the plant on a daily basis.  But, for the government to mandate a system on these small plants that requires them to waste so much time on paperwork is absolutely wrong.

The best way to validate the success of any plant–that it consistently produces wholesome food–is through tes
ting. So, lets have the USDA
test these meat products more frequently. 

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