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Combating E. coli (What? No traceback!)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says illnesses from E. coli O157:H7 fell to a five-year low in the U.S. last year.  CDC attributed the improvement to a combination of government and industry efforts to curb contamination. The CDC has been tracking E. coli O157:H7 cases since the Jack in the Box incident in 1993 killed 4 children and sickened over 700.  The contaminant was confined to beef until a few years ago when it started appearing on field vegetables.  One of the most unexpected cases was last year’s recall of Nestle Toll House cookie dough, ultimately traced to contaminated flour.

Campylobacter, Listeria, Salmonella, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O157, Shigella, and Yersinia infections have declined overall since 1996.  But the incidence of infections caused by Salmonella, Listeria, and Campylobacter has essentially been unchanged since 2004, causing some concern.  Why the steady advances in the science behind defeating these infections haven’t moved the dial is a question that needs an answer as soon as possible.

Confirmed cases of E. coli O157 have finally reached a government-stated goal of less than 1 of every 100,000 people, according to the CDC report.  The agency’s Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) identified 459 cases in the 10 states it audits.  Translated to nation-wide numbers, those data suggest over 70,000 people are hospitalized every year and approximately 60 die.  Continuing, chronic health problems suffered by survivors are an unknown factor, contested in court too often by the legal community.  The most notorious is the tragedy that struck Stephanie Smith in 2007.

Her story earned Michael Moss and other New York Times staff members a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. Their report on the effect a contaminated hamburger had on the life of a young dancer turned a harsh light on defects in federal regulations and might have been the catalyst that led to recent changes in government oversight.

Writing about the prize-winning story, the Associated Press said, “Moss used confidential corporate and government records to tell the story of a single hamburger patty that infected 22-year-old Stephanie Smith with E. coli in 2007 and left her paralyzed.”

The CDC report, which delighted meat industry trade associations, was questioned by two of the food safety system’s most vocal critics.  “The findings of this report show that although there has been some progress, significant work remains to improve our food safety system,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). “We have seen the E. coli incidence go down in the past only to rise the next year.  While there was a decrease in E. coli we saw increases in other critical foodborne illnesses like campylobacteriosis and vibriosis. These trends clearly show the need for an improved food safety system.”

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler, always ready to look on the flip side of things for a darker story, blogged, “Perhaps we simply stopped counting the real number of E. coli O157:H7 cases?

His blog pointed out that “the number of state health department epidemiologists, and the tasks they can perform, have decreased since 2006, according to a study published by the CDC on Dec. 18, 2009.  So, less funding, fewer epidemiologists means you count fewer E. coli O157:H7 cases?  How convenient–the fewer you count, the better you look.”

“So, a 25 [percent] decrease in E. coli O157:H7 illnesses at the same time state health department epidemiologists are decreasing? Hmm, sounds like ‘fuzzy math’ to me.”

Fuzzy math or not, DeLauro’s call to improve the food safety system might become a reality soon.  FSIS is preparing to implement new, more aggressive traceback procedures when meat samples at grinding plants test positive for E. coli O157:H7.

Dr. Daniel Engeljohn of FSIS said the real issue is the degree to which the agency traces the source of E. coli when samples test positive.

“It is a difference in how we do it with an investigation related to illness.  What we announced is a substantive change to more thoroughly investigate traceback to the slaughter supplier, more so than what we do today.”

Engeljohn’s plan will give FSIS a two-day head start, allowing immediate action when they get a preliminary or “presumptive” finding of E. coli in routine testing of ground beef.  Currently FSIS waits 48 hours for the presumptive test to be confirmed.  With the rapid consumption patterns of fresh ground beef, that 48 hour time lapse can allow most, if not all, the product to enter commerce and be consumed.

Montana Senator John Tester thinks the approach Engeljohn announced is still too weak and is introducing a bill that would require traceback to the original source–not just the facility that sold trimmings to a grinding plant.  He wants investigators to get to the slaughter facility where E. coli most likely was introduced.  Currently, a valid traceback system isn’t required by USDA.

Indeed, restrictions on the degree of traceback and packer prohibitions on testing incoming product at the grinding plant have left a huge hole in the food safety net.
 
Tester’s traceback plan should end a glaring shortfall in FSIS’s ability to combat E. coli O157:H7.  Last summer, a letter sent from Phil Derfler, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Policy and Program Development, to Ken Petersen, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Field Operations, underlined the problem.

Derfler’s letter, contents released by the North American Meat Processors Association last June, addressed the responsibilities of an establishment that receives and processes raw beef to control E. coli O157:H7 as opposed to the establishment that supplies the beef.

The letter states that if primals are to remain intact, E. coli O157:H7 is not considered a hazard that should be specifically addressed by the establishment that receives them.  However, if any of the product is to be ground the “responsibility for controlling this hazard falls largely on the receiving establishment”.  The ‘sending’ establishment has no responsibility.

In other words, a small processor doesn’t have to worry about E. coli being present on meat shipped in from his supplier unless the bacteria are present.  Only then does he have to worry about it, especially if he intends to grind.  It’s a peculiar government-granted conundrum.

The letter states that the key point is that “receiving establishments must perform on-going activities to verify that its HACCP plan is being effectively implemented and maintain documents that support that those activities and the frequency with which it performs them are appropriate to accomplish their intended purpose”.

However, the letter also states that this does not mean the supplying establishment has no responsibility for the safety of primal cuts, particularly if it knows the primals are intended for use as non-intact products. 

Derfler’s letter represented no change from FSIS’ thinking at the time. Because no new regulations were issued for controlling E. coli O157:H7, the North American Meat Processors Association said it was becoming increasingly difficult for further processing establishments to justify the decision that E. coli O157:H7 is a hazard not reasonably likely to occur on the subprimals they receive.

In fact, without stricter upstream cont
rols, E. coli contamination should be deemed a hazard likely to occur.  Maybe Engeljohn’s plan with an assist from Tester can solve the Catch 22 faced by small- to medium-sized suppliers of ground beef?

© Food Safety News
  • Dick Raymond

    FSIS does not “wait” for 48 hours for a presumptive positive to become a confirmed positive before starting a trace back investigation. They simply do NOT trace back for a positive sample. They only trace back when there are illnesses. That is a delay of weeks, not days.
    And, the decrease in E coli in the MMWR report is NOT because there are fewer state epidemiologists. The number of cases is determined by health care providers ordering lab tests that come back positive for E coli. The epidemiologists then kick into action to try and determine the source to prevent more illnesses. So there actually could be more illnesses because of fewer epidemiologists, not fewer.
    The number of estimated cases of E coli is determined by taking the number of cases in the FoodNet catchment area times 20 and then figuring a number based on percentage of persons living in the catchment area compared to the nation as a whole. The UK believes the number used should be 3, not 20, so we should ask the CDC for solid scientific facts behind their choice of a mulitplier that is this high. It may make us look worse than we are.

  • dick raymond

    E coli 0157:H7 illnesses hit an all time low in 2004 when we had an estimated less than one person per one hundred thousand in this country fall ill to the bug. What happened after that that made the numbers go up? We had over 200 illnesses from spinach in one year, over 70 from lettuce used in a fast food Taco restaurant, and last year the biggest outbreak was the above mentioned cookie dough contamination. So the NYT writes an expose on ground beef, and the average American still inaccurately thinks all E coli illnesses are related to the meat industry, when only 33% of 0157:H7 illnesses with a known source are linked to ground beef. But 34% of illnesses with a known cause are linked to produce. So when the numbers go back down to less than one per hundred thousand again, for the first time since 2004, who should get the credit? Beef industry, produce industry or consumers for safe handling and proper cooking habits?

  • jmunsell

    Chuck Jolley is the latest journalist to accurately describe USDA’s E.coli traceback policies, which are inadequate by intentional agency design.
    The agency’s lab test protocol can be summarized this way: the sample is collected on Monday, and overnighted to a USDA lab. On Tuesday, the lab commences testing. On Wednesday, the lab concludes with a confirmed negative, or a “Potential Positive”, which subjects the sample to additional testing. On Thursday, the lab either determines a confirmed negative, or a “Presumptive Positive”, after which additional confirmatory lab tests are performed. On Friday or Saturday, the lab either concludes with a “Confirmed Negative”, or a “Confirmed Positive”. Currently, once the “Confirmed Positive” determination has been made (Friday or Saturday), the inspector at the grinding plant is to collect information from the plant regarding where the meat originated which produced the ground beef sample. At the March 10 Traceback hearing, the agency announced an “improvement” in this system. USDA stated that once a “Presumptive Positive” determination is made, the agency will send an EIAO to the grinding plant within 2 days to commence an investigation. This means that on Thursday (Day 4) when the “Presumptive Positive” determination is made, the agency will attempt to get an EIAO to the grinding plant within two days, which means by Friday or Saturday. Saturday equates to next Monday. And, EIAO’s frequently have hundreds of miles to travel, and if they are already in the midst of an FSA, their availability will be challenged. So, in this scenario, we are looking at the arrival of an EIAO on next Monday, a full week AFTER the sample of ground beef was collected. This artificial agency-mandated delay translates to high risk for consumers eating meat which had not been subjected to test and hold. It also delays the determination of other common source meat which had been sent to other grinding plants, which likewise is coursing through our domestic meat chain totally oblivious to the probability of harboring highly infective pathogens.
    The real question here is why does the agency prohibit inspectors from documenting all evidence in real time, which should be part & parcel of the scientific method? Why doesn’t the agency allow inspectors who collect ground beef samples to document the slaughter house of origin at the time the sample is collected? Instead, USDA intentionally delays meaningful evidence gathering for a week, until the trail of evidence turns cold, at which time the agency has no ability to independently validate the accuracy of source information provided by the grinding plant one week after the ground beef sample was collected.
    On July 26, 2002, FSIS DC hq’s sent an internal email to all 15 of its District Offices to address this issue. One verbatim quote from this email was “At the time the [ground beef] sample is taken, the IIC [Inspector] will obtain from the establishment, the name, point of contact, and phone number for the establishments supplying the source materials for the lot of ground beef being sampled”. End quote. This email constitutes proof that the agency can require real-time evidence gathering, and can mandate this change via a simple email, not requiring additional rules or time-consuming public hearings. This change made sense then, as well as in 2010. Unfortunately, this procedure was rescinded two months later. Why? One agency spokesperson stated, at a public meeting, that the agency rescinded this new procedure “FOR LEGAL REASONS”. Rest assured, the small grinding plants was not the source of this litigation threat.
    The agency’s refusal to document all evidence in real time is directly associated with the agency’s refusal to perform Tracebacks to the source slaughter plants, as Mr. Jolley’s article explains. If the agency were to successfully trace back to the slaughter house origin of E.coli and Salmonella, numerous adverse revelations would result. Successful tracebacks (1) would reveal that slaughter establishments continue to ship volumes of E.coli & Salmonella-laced meat into commerce, bearing the official USDA Mark of Inspection, (2) would reveal that the agency is asleep at the wheel at the large slaughter plants, a natural result of the agency’s HACCP deregulation of the large slaughter plants, and (3) would reveal that HACCP has dismally failed in its pre-HACCP promises to improve food safety via its highly-heralded “scientific basis”.
    Isn’t it interesting that a full 12 years after the large slaughter plants implemented HACCP, an adequate time frame for HACCP to mature, that the agency finally hosted a public hearing (March 10) in which it asked for public ideas on how the agency might improve its traceback policies. The meeting was for public relations purposes: FSIS already knows what it must do to protect the public, while the agency adroitly avoids doing what it knows must be done.
    Mr. Jolley stated “Indeed, restrictions on the degree of traceback and packer prohibitions on testing incoming product at the grinding plant have left a huge hole in the food safety net”. End quote. I agree. The agency’s artificial restrictions are intended to thwart tracebacks, in ANY time frame. The NYTimes article publicly exposed that the big slaughter plants do NOT want its customers to test incoming meat, and history has revealed that destination plants who test incoming have been blacklisted by suppliers. Must be something to hide here. Nevertheless, the agency continues to pressure the downstream further processing plants to test incoming meat, and swallow the expensive lab fees. This issue was further explained by Alfred V. Almanza, FSIS Administrator, in his March 19, 2010 letter to nine meat industry associations to explain the agency’s expectations for Validation activities to be performed by small, downstream further processors. Mr. Almanza stated “For example, collecting data on initial and finished product microbial loads using an appropriate indicator to demonstrate a log reduction capability, along with presence/absence data for the food safety hazard of interest, is extremely useful”. End quote. Thus, the agency mandates testing “INITIAL”, i.e. “Incoming” meat, as well as the final product, to determine the grinding plant’s ability to reduce the amount of pathogens residing within incoming meat. The agency is admitting that incoming meat arrives with inappropriately high amounts of pathogens, and that the way to resolve this issue is for the receiving plant to determine the amount of incoming pathogens, and then remove the pathogens to a less-than-detectable level. Who cares about the insanitary conditions at the originating slaughter establishments? Naw, FSIS now places full liability at the downstream destination facilities. Mr. Almanza’s letter goes on to state, and I quote, “These data can be used to demonstrate that a process, as designed, will mitigate to a specified extent a food safety hazard occurring in the raw materials that the establishment typically receives”. End quote. Egads, FSIS admits that the downstream further processing plants typically receive raw materials containing food safety hazards! So, what is the agency’s science-based resolution for this issue? Have the receiving plants test incoming meat. No pressure is being placed on the source slaughter plants. Nope, that would be contrary to the deregulated aspect of HACCP, at least as far as the big 4 packers are concerned. Another statement of Mr. Almanza’s is this: “….. to reduce the level of pathogens associated with the raw materials received at the establishment….” Beginning to sound like a broken record, isn’t it.
    Mr. Almanza’s letter also refers to what a “Prudent [downstream] Establishment” would do. I’d like to reveal exactly what FSIS means by the term “Prudent”, and make other comments, but my wife is waiting for me to make popcorn and watch a movie, so I’ll delay until tomorrow my finishing comments on this “conundrum”.
    John Munsell, Manager
    Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
    Miles City, MT

  • John Munsell

    Chuck Jolley is the latest journalist to accurately describe USDA’s E.coli traceback policies, which are inadequate by intentional agency design.
    The agency’s lab test protocol can be summarized this way: the sample is collected on Monday, and overnighted to a USDA lab. On Tuesday, the lab commences testing. On Wednesday, the lab concludes with a confirmed negative, or a “Potential Positive”, which subjects the sample to additional testing. On Thursday, the lab either determines a confirmed negative, or a “Presumptive Positive”, after which additional confirmatory lab tests are performed. On Friday or Saturday, the lab either concludes with a “Confirmed Negative”, or a “Confirmed Positive”. Currently, once the “Confirmed Positive” determination has been made (Friday or Saturday), the inspector at the grinding plant is to collect information from the plant regarding where the meat originated which produced the ground beef sample. At the March 10 Traceback hearing, the agency announced an “improvement” in this system. USDA stated that once a “Presumptive Positive” determination is made, the agency will send an EIAO to the grinding plant within 2 days to commence an investigation. This means that on Thursday (Day 4) when the “Presumptive Positive” determination is made, the agency will attempt to get an EIAO to the grinding plant within two days, which means by Friday or Saturday. Saturday equates to next Monday. And, EIAO’s frequently have hundreds of miles to travel, and if they are already in the midst of an FSA, their availability will be challenged. So, in this scenario, we are looking at the arrival of an EIAO on next Monday, a full week AFTER the sample of ground beef was collected. This artificial agency-mandated delay translates to high risk for consumers eating meat which had not been subjected to test and hold. It also delays the determination of other common source meat which had been sent to other grinding plants, which likewise is coursing through our domestic meat chain totally oblivious to the probability of harboring highly infective pathogens.
    The real question here is why does the agency prohibit inspectors from documenting all evidence in real time, which should be part & parcel of the scientific method? Why doesn’t the agency allow inspectors who collect ground beef samples to document the slaughter house of origin at the time the sample is collected? Instead, USDA intentionally delays meaningful evidence gathering for a week, until the trail of evidence turns cold, at which time the agency has no ability to independently validate the accuracy of source information provided by the grinding plant one week after the ground beef sample was collected.
    On July 26, 2002, FSIS DC hq’s sent an internal email to all 15 of its District Offices to address this issue. One verbatim quote from this email was “At the time the [ground beef] sample is taken, the IIC [Inspector] will obtain from the establishment, the name, point of contact, and phone number for the establishments supplying the source materials for the lot of ground beef being sampled”. End quote. This email constitutes proof that the agency can require real-time evidence gathering, and can mandate this change via a simple email, not requiring additional rules or time-consuming public hearings. This change made sense then, as well as in 2010. Unfortunately, this procedure was rescinded two months later. Why? One agency spokesperson stated, at a public meeting, that the agency rescinded this new procedure “FOR LEGAL REASONS”. Rest assured, the small grinding plants was not the source of this litigation threat.
    The agency’s refusal to document all evidence in real time is directly associated with the agency’s refusal to perform Tracebacks to the source slaughter plants, as Mr. Jolley’s article explains. If the agency were to successfully trace back to the slaughter house origin of E.coli and Salmonella, numerous adverse revelations would result. Successful tracebacks (1) would reveal that slaughter establishments continue to ship volumes of E.coli & Salmonella-laced meat into commerce, bearing the official USDA Mark of Inspection, (2) would reveal that the agency is asleep at the wheel at the large slaughter plants, a natural result of the agency’s HACCP deregulation of the large slaughter plants, and (3) would reveal that HACCP has dismally failed in its pre-HACCP promises to improve food safety via its highly-heralded “scientific basis”.
    Isn’t it interesting that a full 12 years after the large slaughter plants implemented HACCP, an adequate time frame for HACCP to mature, that the agency finally hosted a public hearing (March 10) in which it asked for public ideas on how the agency might improve its traceback policies. The meeting was for public relations purposes: FSIS already knows what it must do to protect the public, while the agency adroitly avoids doing what it knows must be done.
    Mr. Jolley stated “Indeed, restrictions on the degree of traceback and packer prohibitions on testing incoming product at the grinding plant have left a huge hole in the food safety net”. End quote. I agree. The agency’s artificial restrictions are intended to thwart tracebacks, in ANY time frame. The NYTimes article publicly exposed that the big slaughter plants do NOT want its customers to test incoming meat, and history has revealed that destination plants who test incoming have been blacklisted by suppliers. Must be something to hide here. Nevertheless, the agency continues to pressure the downstream further processing plants to test incoming meat, and swallow the expensive lab fees. This issue was further explained by Alfred V. Almanza, FSIS Administrator, in his March 19, 2010 letter to nine meat industry associations to explain the agency’s expectations for Validation activities to be performed by small, downstream further processors. Mr. Almanza stated “For example, collecting data on initial and finished product microbial loads using an appropriate indicator to demonstrate a log reduction capability, along with presence/absence data for the food safety hazard of interest, is extremely useful”. End quote. Thus, the agency mandates testing “INITIAL”, i.e. “Incoming” meat, as well as the final product, to determine the grinding plant’s ability to reduce the amount of pathogens residing within incoming meat. The agency is admitting that incoming meat arrives with inappropriately high amounts of pathogens, and that the way to resolve this issue is for the receiving plant to determine the amount of incoming pathogens, and then remove the pathogens to a less-than-detectable level. Who cares about the insanitary conditions at the originating slaughter establishments? Naw, FSIS now places full liability at the downstream destination facilities. Mr. Almanza’s letter goes on to state, and I quote, “These data can be used to demonstrate that a process, as designed, will mitigate to a specified extent a food safety hazard occurring in the raw materials that the establishment typically receives”. End quote. Egads, FSIS admits that the downstream further processing plants typically receive raw materials containing food safety hazards! So, what is the agency’s science-based resolution for this issue? Have the receiving plants test incoming meat. No pressure is being placed on the source slaughter plants. Nope, that would be contrary to the deregulated aspect of HACCP, at least as far as the big 4 packers are concerned. Another statement of Mr. Almanza’s is this: “….. to reduce the level of pathogens associated with the raw materials received at the establishment….” Beginning to sound like a broken record, isn’t it.
    Mr. Almanza’s letter also refers to what a “Prudent [downstream] Establishment” would do. I’d like to reveal exactly what FSIS means by the term “Prudent”, and make other comments, but my wife is waiting for me to make popcorn and watch a movie, so I’ll delay until tomorrow my finishing comments on this “conundrum”.
    John Munsell, Manager
    Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
    Miles City, MT

  • jmunsell

    A particularly thought-provoking statement by Chuck Jolley was “The letter [from FSIS’ Phil Derfler] states that if primals are to remain intact, E.coli -0157:H7 is not considered a hazard that should be specifically addressed by the establishment that receives them. However, if any of the product is to be ground the “responsibility for controlling this hazard falls largely on the receiving establishment”. The ‘sending’ establishment has no responsibility”. End quote. This agency statement needs to be intimately discussed.
    The big packers ship volumes of boxed beef (intact cuts) into commerce every day, destined for further processing plants who process these intact cuts into steaks, roast, and ground beef. Perhaps the majority of this boxed beef is destined for retail meat markets, and some goes to restaurants and institutions. As a practical matter, the vast majority of these intact cuts do produce trimmings, which has always been processed into ground beef. In spite of this truism, some major packers have resorted to placing the statement “Not Intended For Grinding” on invoices & Bills of Lading accompanying the meat, insulating the big source slaughter plant from liability when the downstream plants grind the mountains of trim caused by processing the intact cuts. Grinding of trim has always occurred, and always will. Is a processor to destroys hundreds or thousands of pounds of good trim daily? Although this is a no-brainer, FSIS purposefully allows the source slaughter plants to place this disengenuous and misleading statement on invoices & Bills of Lading. In other words, further processors (and consumers) process and eat meat at their own risk.
    When intact cuts are shipped into commerce which are surface-contaminated with E.coli 0157:H7, FSIS classifies the bacteria as “contaminants”, NOT adulterants. However, when these intact cuts are further processed at the downstream entity, and E.coli 0157:H7 is subsequently detected, as Phil Derfler’s letter stated “the responsibility for controlling this hazard falls largely on the receiving establishment”. End quote. This illogic is absurd, based only in political science, and continues to threaten public health as well as the viability of victimized downstream further processors. Follow the agency’s thought process on this: when E.coli 0157:H7 is present on the exterior of intact cuts, it constitutes merely a contaminant. But, once the intact cuts have been further processed, those previously feckless bacteria supernaturally morph themselves into lethal killers. Why? Because the further processing establishment has sanitation problems, which forced the previously harmless bacteria to change into adulterants capable of killing consumers. As an example, on three consecutive days in February 2002, ground beef samples collected by an Inspector at my plant tested positive for E.coli 0157:H7 at a USDA lab. The inspector observed that all the source meat emanated from ConAgra’s plant in Greeley CO, the burger was single source, and the grinder was clean and sanitized before the ConAgra meat was placed into the grinder. The agency itself had smoking gun evidence in its hands, unquestionably delineating the true source of E.coli 0157:H7-laced meat. What did the agency do? Accused my plant of having multiple failures in its HACCP Plan, and shut off my grinder for four months. When push came to shove, the agency stated that my HACCP Plan had multiple failures because I allowed previously-contaminated meat onto my premises. In spite of the fact that the meat arrived in containers bearing the official USDA Mark of Inspection which states “USDA Inspected and Passed”, and that the resident E.coli was invisible to the naked eye, FSIS held me fully accountable. Well, nothing has changed in the ensuing years, because the agency realizes it has a tiger by the tail if it were to foolishly attempt to implement MEANINGFUL enforcement actions at the large source slaughter plants. FSIS is paralyzed with fear of litigation originating from the largest slaughter establishments. During the four months the agency refused to allow me to use my grinder, the agency simultaneously did nothing at ConAgra. What happened? History shows that at the end of the four months, ConAgra announced a 19.1 million lb recall, dozens were sickened in numerous states, and 1 woman died. Ironically, when ConAgra announced the recall, FSIS immediately allowed me to grind again. The agency could hide its head in the sand no longer. However, the agency has since reinserted its head into the sand, where it remains comfortably ensconced. Agency actions at my plant were not unique! In fact, my subsequent conversations with dozens of plant owners across the country who have been likewise victimized by such sordid scenarios, coupled with visits with agency inspectors and veterinarians, have revealed a consistent agency pattern of insulating the slaughter house source of pathogens from accountability, while hagriding the innocent downline further processors.
    After ConAgra announced its 19.1 million lb recall, USDA’s OIG investigated ConAgra, my plant, Galligans in Denver, and appropriate FSIS District Offices. OIG’s official report, issued one year later, made these startling admissions:
    “Data was available to both ConAgra and USDA in the period prior to the recall that indicated that E.coli contamination was becoming a CONTINUOUS (emphasis added) problem at ConAgra”
    “Although animal feces on product was REPEATEDLY OBSERVED (emphasis added) during production at ConAgra, USDA took no enforcement actions”.
    Bewilderment at the agency’s unwillingness to implement enforcement actions is easily perceived, but there are legitimate reasons to explain the agency’s inaction and intentional lack of meaningful inspection. Agency promises to the industry in the mid-90’s in preparation for HACCP included these agency public revelations:
    1. Under HACCP, the agency would utilize a “Hands Off’ non-involvement role.
    2. Under HACCP, the agency would no longer police the industry, but the industry must police themselves.
    3. Under HACCP, the agency would disband its previous command and control authority.
    4. Each plant could write its own HACCP Plan, and FSIS could NOT tell plants what must be in their HACCP Plans.
    History has revealed thousands of times that the agency has ignored these promises…….at small plants. At the same time, the agency strictly complies with all these promises………at the large slaughter plants. If the agency were to ever be so foolish as to attempt meaningful enforcement actions at the large source slaughter plants, the agency would find itself in court the next day, properly charged with failure to comply with its pre-HACCP promises.
    Frankly, a plethora of agency inspectors and veterinarians have informed me that their perception of HACCP is that the agency implemented it primarily to remove all liability for bad meat from the agency. How can the agency be held even partly liable for meat which it had not inspected, a benefit of HACCP’s deregulation of the big plants.
    Ironically, prior to the recall, ConAgra issued a marketing brochure which stated in part “ConAgra Beef Company’s unparalleled carcass pasteurization program features a series of scientifically proven Interventions that result in a 6 log or 99.9999 percent reduction in pathogenic bacteria from live animal to chilled carcass, virtually sterilizing the carcass”. End quote. This remarkable claim does NOT reconcile itself with the subsequent OIG investigative report which stated that E.coli contamination had become “A CONTINUOUS PROBLEM”. FSIS could care less. The agency revels in its new semi-retirement role at the large source slaughter plants, while throwing its enforcement hammer against the victimized downstream establishments which have now been forced to assume all liability for incoming pathogens.
    Testing alone is NOT the solution to this dilemma. Consider the testing protocol used by the large source slaughter plants, in which they test lots of between 2,000 – 10,000 lbs of boneless trimmings. Their test protocol consists of collecting samples merely from the top of one or more 2,000# combos, and then testing 25 grams, or 365 grams (which is only 83% of one pound). Even though such testing is statistically irrelevant, FSIS heartily endorses such irrelevancy. What else can the agency do? Because of the agency’s four promises listed above, the agency sits idly by. Well, not total idleness, because the agency surges into full speed ahead once the hot meat arrives at the downstream entity.
    Chuck Jolley’s article refers to what a “PRUDENT” downline establishment should be expected to do. In a June 2, 2005 letter to Dennis Johnson at Olsson, Frank and Weeda, Dr. Kenneth Peterson from the agency’s Office of Field Operations stated and I quote “I would expect a prudent establishment to have appropriate procedures to determine product acceptability prior to receiving the product”. End quote. Again, nothing has changed in the agency’s thinking on this subject, and reveals that the agency requires downstream plants to FORCE its source slaughter providers to ship only wholesome meat into commerce. Mission Impossible, and the agency knows it. Consolidation in the slaughter industry has resulted in the four largest slaughter companies killing 88% of our feedlot steers and heifers. The small downstream establishments now have less than a handful of source slaughter suppliers from which to purchase meat, and as such cannot afford to alienate any of their limited number of suppliers. Therefore, the downstream plants fear the results of testing incoming products, while the agency demands that such testing be accomplished. Instead of the agency forcing the slaughter plants to act prudently, all prudence must emanate from downstream destination facilities.
    Mr. Jolley’s concluding remark was “In fact, without stricter upstream controls, E.coli contamination should be deemed a hazard likely to occur”. End quote. Mr. Jolley is precisely correct. In fact, whenever plants purchase ANY meat from the large source slaughter providers, any truthful small plant operator would admit “Yes, indeed, E.coli is a hazard likely to occur because I purchase meat from the large slaughter plants”. But, as FSIS admits, there is a huge difference between Truth and Prudence.
    I conclude that if FSIS were EITHER truthful or prudent, it would Force the Source slaughter plants to clean up their acts. I’m not holding my breath.
    John Munsell, Manager
    Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
    Miles City, MT
    406-234-1877
    406-853-1878
    pdoggy@midrivers.com

  • hhamil

    The situation you describe, Mr. Jolley, does not warrant your statement, “Tester’s traceback plan should end a glaring shortfall in FSIS’s ability to combat E. coli O157:H7.” FSIS has had the “ability” to do everything required by Sen. Tester’s bill for many years. What FSIS has NOT had is the willingness to do it. It has held onto a regulatory stance which shields the largest meat processors from responsibility for their products. And the inaccurate reporting of writers like you misleads readers as to actual responsibility.
    Sen. Tester’s bill demonstrates clearly that our problem is NOT that our regulators don’t have enough authority, as Rep. DeLauro and Bill Marler would have us believe; rather, it is that the FDA and FSIS have been unwilling to use their existing authority. Also, no administration, be it Republican or Democrat, has been willing to hold them accountable for not doing their jobs.
    It is impossible to have a significant improvement in the short term until and unless the FDA & FSIS begin using the powers they already have well. The request for new powers is a smoke screen covering up poor performance and you, Mr. Jolley are helping keep the smoke spewing out.

  • John Munsell

    A particularly thought-provoking statement by Chuck Jolley was “The letter [from FSIS’ Phil Derfler] states that if primals are to remain intact, E.coli -0157:H7 is not considered a hazard that should be specifically addressed by the establishment that receives them. However, if any of the product is to be ground the “responsibility for controlling this hazard falls largely on the receiving establishment”. The ‘sending’ establishment has no responsibility”. End quote. This agency statement needs to be intimately discussed.
    The big packers ship volumes of boxed beef (intact cuts) into commerce every day, destined for further processing plants who process these intact cuts into steaks, roast, and ground beef. Perhaps the majority of this boxed beef is destined for retail meat markets, and some goes to restaurants and institutions. As a practical matter, the vast majority of these intact cuts do produce trimmings, which has always been processed into ground beef. In spite of this truism, some major packers have resorted to placing the statement “Not Intended For Grinding” on invoices & Bills of Lading accompanying the meat, insulating the big source slaughter plant from liability when the downstream plants grind the mountains of trim caused by processing the intact cuts. Grinding of trim has always occurred, and always will. Is a processor to destroys hundreds or thousands of pounds of good trim daily? Although this is a no-brainer, FSIS purposefully allows the source slaughter plants to place this disengenuous and misleading statement on invoices & Bills of Lading. In other words, further processors (and consumers) process and eat meat at their own risk.
    When intact cuts are shipped into commerce which are surface-contaminated with E.coli 0157:H7, FSIS classifies the bacteria as “contaminants”, NOT adulterants. However, when these intact cuts are further processed at the downstream entity, and E.coli 0157:H7 is subsequently detected, as Phil Derfler’s letter stated “the responsibility for controlling this hazard falls largely on the receiving establishment”. End quote. This illogic is absurd, based only in political science, and continues to threaten public health as well as the viability of victimized downstream further processors. Follow the agency’s thought process on this: when E.coli 0157:H7 is present on the exterior of intact cuts, it constitutes merely a contaminant. But, once the intact cuts have been further processed, those previously feckless bacteria supernaturally morph themselves into lethal killers. Why? Because the further processing establishment has sanitation problems, which forced the previously harmless bacteria to change into adulterants capable of killing consumers. As an example, on three consecutive days in February 2002, ground beef samples collected by an Inspector at my plant tested positive for E.coli 0157:H7 at a USDA lab. The inspector observed that all the source meat emanated from ConAgra’s plant in Greeley CO, the burger was single source, and the grinder was clean and sanitized before the ConAgra meat was placed into the grinder. The agency itself had smoking gun evidence in its hands, unquestionably delineating the true source of E.coli 0157:H7-laced meat. What did the agency do? Accused my plant of having multiple failures in its HACCP Plan, and shut off my grinder for four months. When push came to shove, the agency stated that my HACCP Plan had multiple failures because I allowed previously-contaminated meat onto my premises. In spite of the fact that the meat arrived in containers bearing the official USDA Mark of Inspection which states “USDA Inspected and Passed”, and that the resident E.coli was invisible to the naked eye, FSIS held me fully accountable. Well, nothing has changed in the ensuing years, because the agency realizes it has a tiger by the tail if it were to foolishly attempt to implement MEANINGFUL enforcement actions at the large source slaughter plants. FSIS is paralyzed with fear of litigation originating from the largest slaughter establishments. During the four months the agency refused to allow me to use my grinder, the agency simultaneously did nothing at ConAgra. What happened? History shows that at the end of the four months, ConAgra announced a 19.1 million lb recall, dozens were sickened in numerous states, and 1 woman died. Ironically, when ConAgra announced the recall, FSIS immediately allowed me to grind again. The agency could hide its head in the sand no longer. However, the agency has since reinserted its head into the sand, where it remains comfortably ensconced. Agency actions at my plant were not unique! In fact, my subsequent conversations with dozens of plant owners across the country who have been likewise victimized by such sordid scenarios, coupled with visits with agency inspectors and veterinarians, have revealed a consistent agency pattern of insulating the slaughter house source of pathogens from accountability, while hagriding the innocent downline further processors.
    After ConAgra announced its 19.1 million lb recall, USDA’s OIG investigated ConAgra, my plant, Galligans in Denver, and appropriate FSIS District Offices. OIG’s official report, issued one year later, made these startling admissions:
    “Data was available to both ConAgra and USDA in the period prior to the recall that indicated that E.coli contamination was becoming a CONTINUOUS (emphasis added) problem at ConAgra”
    “Although animal feces on product was REPEATEDLY OBSERVED (emphasis added) during production at ConAgra, USDA took no enforcement actions”.
    Bewilderment at the agency’s unwillingness to implement enforcement actions is easily perceived, but there are legitimate reasons to explain the agency’s inaction and intentional lack of meaningful inspection. Agency promises to the industry in the mid-90’s in preparation for HACCP included these agency public revelations:
    1. Under HACCP, the agency would utilize a “Hands Off’ non-involvement role.
    2. Under HACCP, the agency would no longer police the industry, but the industry must police themselves.
    3. Under HACCP, the agency would disband its previous command and control authority.
    4. Each plant could write its own HACCP Plan, and FSIS could NOT tell plants what must be in their HACCP Plans.
    History has revealed thousands of times that the agency has ignored these promises…….at small plants. At the same time, the agency strictly complies with all these promises………at the large slaughter plants. If the agency were to ever be so foolish as to attempt meaningful enforcement actions at the large source slaughter plants, the agency would find itself in court the next day, properly charged with failure to comply with its pre-HACCP promises.
    Frankly, a plethora of agency inspectors and veterinarians have informed me that their perception of HACCP is that the agency implemented it primarily to remove all liability for bad meat from the agency. How can the agency be held even partly liable for meat which it had not inspected, a benefit of HACCP’s deregulation of the big plants.
    Ironically, prior to the recall, ConAgra issued a marketing brochure which stated in part “ConAgra Beef Company’s unparalleled carcass pasteurization program features a series of scientifically proven Interventions that result in a 6 log or 99.9999 percent reduction in pathogenic bacteria from live animal to chilled carcass, virtually sterilizing the carcass”. End quote. This remarkable claim does NOT reconcile itself with the subsequent OIG investigative report which stated that E.coli contamination had become “A CONTINUOUS PROBLEM”. FSIS could care less. The agency revels in its new semi-retirement role at the large source slaughter plants, while throwing its enforcement hammer against the victimized downstream establishments which have now been forced to assume all liability for incoming pathogens.
    Testing alone is NOT the solution to this dilemma. Consider the testing protocol used by the large source slaughter plants, in which they test lots of between 2,000 – 10,000 lbs of boneless trimmings. Their test protocol consists of collecting samples merely from the top of one or more 2,000# combos, and then testing 25 grams, or 365 grams (which is only 83% of one pound). Even though such testing is statistically irrelevant, FSIS heartily endorses such irrelevancy. What else can the agency do? Because of the agency’s four promises listed above, the agency sits idly by. Well, not total idleness, because the agency surges into full speed ahead once the hot meat arrives at the downstream entity.
    Chuck Jolley’s article refers to what a “PRUDENT” downline establishment should be expected to do. In a June 2, 2005 letter to Dennis Johnson at Olsson, Frank and Weeda, Dr. Kenneth Peterson from the agency’s Office of Field Operations stated and I quote “I would expect a prudent establishment to have appropriate procedures to determine product acceptability prior to receiving the product”. End quote. Again, nothing has changed in the agency’s thinking on this subject, and reveals that the agency requires downstream plants to FORCE its source slaughter providers to ship only wholesome meat into commerce. Mission Impossible, and the agency knows it. Consolidation in the slaughter industry has resulted in the four largest slaughter companies killing 88% of our feedlot steers and heifers. The small downstream establishments now have less than a handful of source slaughter suppliers from which to purchase meat, and as such cannot afford to alienate any of their limited number of suppliers. Therefore, the downstream plants fear the results of testing incoming products, while the agency demands that such testing be accomplished. Instead of the agency forcing the slaughter plants to act prudently, all prudence must emanate from downstream destination facilities.
    Mr. Jolley’s concluding remark was “In fact, without stricter upstream controls, E.coli contamination should be deemed a hazard likely to occur”. End quote. Mr. Jolley is precisely correct. In fact, whenever plants purchase ANY meat from the large source slaughter providers, any truthful small plant operator would admit “Yes, indeed, E.coli is a hazard likely to occur because I purchase meat from the large slaughter plants”. But, as FSIS admits, there is a huge difference between Truth and Prudence.
    I conclude that if FSIS were EITHER truthful or prudent, it would Force the Source slaughter plants to clean up their acts. I’m not holding my breath.
    John Munsell, Manager
    Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
    Miles City, MT
    406-234-1877
    406-853-1878
    pdoggy@midrivers.com

  • Harry Hamil

    The situation you describe, Mr. Jolley, does not warrant your statement, “Tester’s traceback plan should end a glaring shortfall in FSIS’s ability to combat E. coli O157:H7.” FSIS has had the “ability” to do everything required by Sen. Tester’s bill for many years. What FSIS has NOT had is the willingness to do it. It has held onto a regulatory stance which shields the largest meat processors from responsibility for their products. And the inaccurate reporting of writers like you misleads readers as to actual responsibility.
    Sen. Tester’s bill demonstrates clearly that our problem is NOT that our regulators don’t have enough authority, as Rep. DeLauro and Bill Marler would have us believe; rather, it is that the FDA and FSIS have been unwilling to use their existing authority. Also, no administration, be it Republican or Democrat, has been willing to hold them accountable for not doing their jobs.
    It is impossible to have a significant improvement in the short term until and unless the FDA & FSIS begin using the powers they already have well. The request for new powers is a smoke screen covering up poor performance and you, Mr. Jolley are helping keep the smoke spewing out.

  • jmunsell

    FSIS’ unwillingness to perform tracebacks is a well-documented historical fact. Mr. Hamil is correct, in that the agency’s failure to traceback to the SOURCE of contamination is not caused by USDA’s lack of authority! The agency CAN accomplish tracebacks, but does not WANT to. This is not a matter of ability, but the absence of willingness.
    Indeed, there is an inherent potential shortcoming not only to Senator Tester’s bill and Representative DeLauro and Senator Gillebrand’s bills. Although our legislators passed the Country of Origin Labeling Bill in 2002, agency policies have been written to effectively circumvent the intent of the Bill, eviscerating all potential benefits of the Bill by deliberately deceptive rule-making ruses. It is a virtual certainty that if the Senate & House pass meaningful legislation, FSIS rule makers will intentionally emasculate all potential food safety and public health benefits from the bills. FSIS solely exists to be self-serving, and to protect its primary ally, the big packers, from liability.
    FSIS revels in its role as a fourth branch of government, absent the checks and balances which constrain the other three branches. FSIS is totally unaccountable for its behavior and policies, the primary reason for these ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls.
    John Munsell, Manager
    Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
    Miles City, Montana
    “Force the Source”

  • Doc Mudd

    Always, always the conspiracy theories! This or that U.S. Government agency conspiring with untold legions of anonymous private “big businesses” to systematically destroy us all. Be afraid, be very afraid! What a heap of dung.
    .
    This incessant foolishness does succeed in distracting us and wearing us down from attempting to make progress in food safety.

  • John Munsell

    FSIS’ unwillingness to perform tracebacks is a well-documented historical fact. Mr. Hamil is correct, in that the agency’s failure to traceback to the SOURCE of contamination is not caused by USDA’s lack of authority! The agency CAN accomplish tracebacks, but does not WANT to. This is not a matter of ability, but the absence of willingness.
    Indeed, there is an inherent potential shortcoming not only to Senator Tester’s bill and Representative DeLauro and Senator Gillebrand’s bills. Although our legislators passed the Country of Origin Labeling Bill in 2002, agency policies have been written to effectively circumvent the intent of the Bill, eviscerating all potential benefits of the Bill by deliberately deceptive rule-making ruses. It is a virtual certainty that if the Senate & House pass meaningful legislation, FSIS rule makers will intentionally emasculate all potential food safety and public health benefits from the bills. FSIS solely exists to be self-serving, and to protect its primary ally, the big packers, from liability.
    FSIS revels in its role as a fourth branch of government, absent the checks and balances which constrain the other three branches. FSIS is totally unaccountable for its behavior and policies, the primary reason for these ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls.
    John Munsell, Manager
    Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE)
    Miles City, Montana
    “Force the Source”