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Bill Introduced to Improve Meat Traceback

Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced a bill yesterday to overhaul the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) protocol for tracing contaminated meat back to the source to protect public health and hold “the right people accountable when something goes wrong.”

Tester’s bill, the Meat Safety and Accountability Act, would require the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to “design and implement–using its existing budget–an initiative to trace tainted meat back to the original source of contamination,” otherwise known as “traceback.”

According to food safety experts, one of the most glaring flaws in the meat safety system is the lack of any meaningful traceback requirement.

When an FSIS official finds a harmful pathogen, such as Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7, in ground beef, they are not required to look up the supply chain to see where the contaminated beef may have originated. Basically, they are not required to look to the slaughterhouse to find what part of the system is failing to produce clean meat.

John Munsell, dubbed “meatpacking maverick” by Mother Jones for his whistleblowing and advocacy, has been pressing for traceback reforms since his own small beef grinding plant was suspended for E. coli contamination in 2002.

Munsell pleaded with the USDA to look up the supply chain to see where the contaminated meat was coming from so it could be recalled–he was sure it was coming from a ConAgra plant in Colorado. The agency did not further the investigation.

Months later, the ConAgra plant Munsell had suspected 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. (See our interview with Mr. Munsell in November 2009 for the full story).

Munsell helped inspire Tester’s bill. He believes the provisions are a step in the right direction.

“Senator Tester’s Bill specifically addresses ‘enteric’ bacteria, which by definition means they emanate from within animals’ intestines, and by extension, these bacteria proliferate on manure-covered hides,” explains Munsell. “This definition points to sloppy dressing procedures at the originating slaughter establishments.”

“The vast majority of downstream, further processing USDA-inspected plants do not have any intestines or manure-covered hides on their premises,” he says. “Interestingly, neither do the tens of thousands of retail meat markets across America, nor restaurants, cafeterias, etc.  If we want to reduce the amount of enteric pathogens in our food chain, we must focus on the source, which FSIS adroitly avoids.”

Bill Bullard, of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America told the Billings Gazette he thinks traceback regulations are “overdue,” though he and many others have noted that the meat industry giants will lobby against Tester’s provisions.

“Our current laws and regulations insulate the slaughtering facilities where the contamination actually occurs and holds them harmless from any disease investigation,” Bullard told the Gazette.

“This bill puts more common sense and fairness into the equation as our food travels through the supply chain to the kitchen table,” Sen. Tester said in a statement Thursday. “This bill will make our food safer to eat by ramping up accountability.”

© Food Safety News
  • jmunsell

    For the first time in its history, USDA/FSIS hosted a public hearing on Tracebacks in DC on March 10, asking for public comments on how the agency might improve its ability to trace back to the source of contamination. The American Meat Institute (AMI), which represents all the Big packers, was represented by Scott Goltry, its VP for Food Safety and Inspection Services. Mr. Goltry provided testimony, which included the following statement:
    “AMI is unaware if a change to the trace back follow up sample procedure would have a significant improvement to public health”. End quote.
    Indeed! AMI has now gone on record to publicly state that the association believes that improved traceback policies by USDA will have NO benefit to public health. Egads, does AMI think we can’t use our cranium? What Mr. Goltry is stating that since improved Tracebacks TO THE SOURCE would force AMI’s big slaughter members to implement meaningful corrective actions to prevent recurrences of contaminated meat, AMI is monolithically opposed to Senator Tester’s bill. Naw, let’s just leave everything as is……….which includes all these ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls.
    When corporate profit trumps public health, as AMI is advocating here, consumer confidence in meat will continue to deteriorate.
    John Munsell

  • Mike Surma

    It is about time that USDA wake up to their incomplete traceback procedure. I hope this bill passes and it is enacted correctly. The source of Ecoli 0157:H7 is most often upstream at the slaughterhouse.

  • hhamil

    Thanks, Helena, for so fully reporting John Munsell’s work for this important bill.
    Sen. Tester’s press release said he “wrote the bill after working closely with Miles City’s John Munsell, a former meat plant owner.” (see http://tester.senate.gov/Newsroom/pr_032410_traceback.cfm).
    The article, “Meatpacking Maverick,” which you mentioned is from the December 2003 issue of “Mother Jones” and still can be read at http://motherjones.com/politics/2003/11/meatpacking-maverick.
    John’s continued dogged persistence–even after being forced out of meatpacking–is a role model for all of us, healthy food supporters.
    Regulation like this that is oriented toward accountability is what I, as a small producer, processor, distributor and retailer of local, healthy food, want. Yes, I do all of those things. Like most of us in the local, healthy food movement, I wear a lot of hats to get out food to market.

  • John Munsell

    For the first time in its history, USDA/FSIS hosted a public hearing on Tracebacks in DC on March 10, asking for public comments on how the agency might improve its ability to trace back to the source of contamination. The American Meat Institute (AMI), which represents all the Big packers, was represented by Scott Goltry, its VP for Food Safety and Inspection Services. Mr. Goltry provided testimony, which included the following statement:
    “AMI is unaware if a change to the trace back follow up sample procedure would have a significant improvement to public health”. End quote.
    Indeed! AMI has now gone on record to publicly state that the association believes that improved traceback policies by USDA will have NO benefit to public health. Egads, does AMI think we can’t use our cranium? What Mr. Goltry is stating that since improved Tracebacks TO THE SOURCE would force AMI’s big slaughter members to implement meaningful corrective actions to prevent recurrences of contaminated meat, AMI is monolithically opposed to Senator Tester’s bill. Naw, let’s just leave everything as is……….which includes all these ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls.
    When corporate profit trumps public health, as AMI is advocating here, consumer confidence in meat will continue to deteriorate.
    John Munsell

  • Harry Hamil

    Thanks, Helena, for so fully reporting John Munsell’s work for this important bill.
    Sen. Tester’s press release said he “wrote the bill after working closely with Miles City’s John Munsell, a former meat plant owner.” (see http://tester.senate.gov/Newsroom/pr_032410_traceback.cfm).
    The article, “Meatpacking Maverick,” which you mentioned is from the December 2003 issue of “Mother Jones” and still can be read at http://motherjones.com/politics/2003/11/meatpacking-maverick.
    John’s continued dogged persistence–even after being forced out of meatpacking–is a role model for all of us, healthy food supporters.
    Regulation like this that is oriented toward accountability is what I, as a small producer, processor, distributor and retailer of local, healthy food, want. Yes, I do all of those things. Like most of us in the local, healthy food movement, I wear a lot of hats to get out food to market.