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Q&A With 'Meatpacking Maverick' Munsell

PART I: An Introduction to John Munsell, the ‘meatpacking

maverick,’ who blew the whistle on the largest meat recall in American

history. 

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

munsell pic.jpgIn

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.

Q: How did you become a meat regulation activist?

A:

It boils down to this… in 2002 we were involved in a recall of about

270 pounds of ground beef that was contaminated with E. coli. That was

a result of at test that was collected by the USDA inspector assigned

to my plant.

The inspector and I both knew and

we stated that the meat that was sampled was from an outside plant–it

wasn’t my meat. Our plant not only slaughtered animals, but we brought

in a lot of meat from the outside. In this particular sample, the

inspector and I both stated it was meat purchased from the outside. 

At

that time, whenever a plant did have a recall, the USDA had to follow

it up with 15 subsequent consecutive days of additional sampling. In

the midst of that there were three consecutive days in which the

samples collected by the inspector turned up positive for E. coli. Both

the inspector and we observed that [the meat that tested positive] all

came from ConAgra. 

Now the battle was on.

The

USDA intentionally hung me out to dry. They ignored the fact the bad

meat I had had come from an outside plant. So, I had to make some

changes to my HACCP plan. I made about 14 changes and they kept turning

them down. It was probably unprecedented in the history of American

inspection–14 changes all denied.

Finally,

what happened is that the ConAgra plant that sold me this meat

announced a 19 million pound recall. Well then, all of the sudden,

overnight, the USDA accepted my changes and allowed me to grind

again–but for four months I was not allowed to grind.

I

came to realize real quickly how disingenuous they were. And I realized

that if they could pull this off at my plant, obviously they could do

it at all small plants across America. Secondly, I came to realize–I

had two young grandkids at that time–that the USDA could really care

less about the health of my grandkids. 

So,

when I came to those conclusions, I decided to fight them every inch of

the way and to expose problems within the USDA’s meat inspection

program. I continue working on that to this day.

Q: You called the recent E. coli beef outbreaks out of New England “embarrassing…” 

A:

I say it’s embarassing, because it should be embarassing to the USDA

that, in spite of their “science-based” meat inspection program we have

all these ongoing outbreaks and recalls. It should also be embarrassing

to our industry.

It’s been 11 year since the

biggest packers implemented the HACCP program. You’d think that by this

point the program would be maturing and paying dividends, but in fact

it’s going the opposite direction. 

We’ve got

to finally realize that the consuming pubic are going to see through

this–this fa├žade. At times I wonder if the word “embarrassing” is not

the right word. The overarching, more important concern is food safety

and sick consumers and people who are dying.

People are dying. A lot of people are getting sick, this should be an embarrassment to this industry, and to the USDA.

Q: Have you been keeping up on the media attention on meat safety–in the New York Times, Larry King Live, Time, etc? 

A: Yes, I keep up on all that. A great many people read [the New York Times article] and the big players in our industry shot it down

Unfortunately,

Michael Moss hit the nail on the head. We do have ongoing problems. The

USDA is not the least bit concerned about going to the root of the

problem, and getting the source to clean up their act.

USDA

is much more willing to go down to your local Safeway store–which

unwillingly inherits previously contaminated meat–the USDA is much

more likely to throw its enforcement hammer against the destination of

previously contaminated meat instead of going to the source, which is

these big multinational packers.

Q: What is the root of the problem–do you think there is a tension at USDA

between promoting the industry and protecting the consumer?

A: Have you heard of the term “agency capture”? That’s the terminology

used to describe the situation in which a government regulatory agency

is captured by the very industry that it supposedly regulates. That is

precisely what has happened here.

John-Munsell.jpgI contend

that the agency has been captured by, is controlled by, big packer

interests.  The revolving door certainly is also detrimental to the

cause of public health.

There is a direct conflict between promoting agricultural products and regulating the industry that creates those products. 

If indeed a big packer produces some bad meat, the USDA is less likely to take aggressive steps against that big packer. And you know, let’s just face it–the big packers get bigger all the time.  Probably five years

ago it was stated that 80 percent of the feedlot cattle in this country–feedlot fattened steers and heifers–80 percent were slaughtered by the top four companies. Now its 88 percent.

The big get bigger, the small get smaller, and go out of business. 

Q:

You’ve been very vocal about your belief that HACCP [Hazard Analysis

and Critical Control Points] systems employed by the meat industry are

‘a hoax.’ If you were writing the meat safety rules, what would they

look like?

A: Number one, HACCP was

advertised as being science-based, and it is not. HACCP was designed by

Pillsbury 20-30 years ago. They were making fully-cooked, ready-to-eat

food for the astronaut  program and it had to be guaranteed safe. Well,

those were highly-processed, fully-cooked ready-to-eat-foods–the

pathogens would be cooked out–they all had a real “kill step.”

Well,

the USDA saw the HACCP program and thought, ‘Gee, that sounds really

good.  Lets apply that meat inspection.’  The problem is the vast

majority of what we process in meat plants is not fully-cooked,

ready-to-eat, it is raw. 

The USDA shouldn’t use the term HACCP unless the products they are working with are fully cooked.

Number

two, when the agency required the industry to implement HACCP, the

agency said that under the program the USDA’s role would be hands-off.

That is an absolute disaster. 

The USDA cannot be hands-off.

Under

the transition to HACCP, the USDA knowingly acquiesced its authority

back to the industry. It’s an absolute disaster waiting to happen.

The

natural long-term consequences of the agency adopting a hands-off,

non-involvement role is ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls all the

time now.

HACCP cannot work in the raw meat industry. 

I

really think that meat inspection should be moved from the USDA, and

that a separate agency should be created to perform inspection of not

only meat and poultry but also produce, which is currently assigned to

the FDA. 

Q: Lets talk about the point

of contamination. Where in the supply chain should we be focused? If

the downstream processors are punished for contaminated meat, how would

you solve that problem? 

A: We know that Salmonella and E. coli are enteric, which means it is being introduced into the food stream at the slaughterhouse.

I

think it makes obvious sense for the USDA to increase their inspection

of and sampling at the slaughter plants.  And when they find problems

there, they need to force the source plants to clean up their act. 

Unfortunately the agency’s primary focus now is at the downstream

plants.

They are so intentionally deceptive.

The USDA says downstream plants should put pressure on source or

slaughter providers to ship them consistently safer meat. Well, these

downstream plants have no power. They cannot control the wholesomeness

of the meat they receive from the big packers, nor can they put

pressure on them. 

It would be my suggestion

that the USDA implement a horrendous increase in the amount of samples

that the agency collects at the originating slaughter plants, and that

the results of all those tests should be made available to the public.

My contention is that, within two weeks, the whole world would know

which slaughter plants are noncompliant and have a high percentage of

positive tests.

Q: Since you are so

familiar with meat processing, I really want to dig into this issue

about how to prevent contamination–you sent me an email about CAFOs

(Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), and their right to exist. In

a concentrated feedlot you’re going to have animals covered in feces,

that is just the reality, but isn’t that part of the problem, that the

animals are so filthy? 

A: In our

facility, we were very small, we would kill maybe 15 to 20 beef in one

day is all. We were not automated. The big plants, the maximum speed

they are allowed is 390 head per hour.

Q: Have you been to one of these big plants?

A:

Mhmm. It’s amazing how automated and how fast they are. I’m not

criticizing them–I’m just saying, it’s part of the American dream, you

know to be highly automated. Because of the fact that the carcasses are

going down the line so quickly, it appears to me that neither the USDA,

nor the employees of the packing plant have an adequate amount of time

to inspect those carcasses, and in fact that is part of the whole ideal

of HACCP is that–you know, everyone admits that those big packers are

leaving hair and fecal matter on carcasses–but at the big plants they

have implemented certain interventions.  For example, they will spray

lactic acid on the carcasses, or steam vacuum them. The industry claims

these are 100 percent safe and successful, well obviously it’s not safe

enough.

E. coli exists in cattle

naturally–and maybe 20 percent have the bad kind of E. coli in their

gut. So in the CAFOS, all those animals in there shed their manure and

then roll around and sleep in each other’s manure–in fact in the

spring when the ice melts they really are living in a pathogen

soup–they are sharing each other’s pathogens. 

For right now, we need to put a lot of emphasis on finding vaccines.

But

lets just say a vaccine removes 90 percent of the bad E. coli, well

what about the remaining 10 percent? Whose responsibility is it that

the bad E. coli doesn’t end up in raw meat? Well, that still then falls

on the slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouses are not doing an adequate

job of preventing cross-contamination.

It

might mean that they have to slow down their chain speeds, and they

have to put more people on the line, whatever is necessary. 

Obviously

the interventions they have now do not remove all the pathogens, so I

say until they can come up with interventions that do, they need to

slow down chain speeds.

The bottom line is they need to test more often and find out where those problems are and how to fix them.

Come

back tomorrow, for PART II of our discussion with John Munsell for more

on his take on HACCP, the pending food safety legislation for

FDA-regulated products, and on what he considers burdensome federal

regulations.

(Munsell also recently contributed an article to Food Safety News, “E.coli Outbreaks: A New Way of Life.”)

© Food Safety News