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FSIS Moves to Improve Ground Beef Traceback

A former small-scale meat plant owner turned activist yesterday hailed an announcement that federal inspectors testing ground beef samples for E. coli will now try to verify where the meat came from.

John Munsell, chairman of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Committee for R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, said he was “quite pleased” with the Oct. 8 notice from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which moves the agency toward a better traceback system.

“Finally, after a battle for more than eight years, FSIS is requiring documentation of source information at the time of evidence gathering,” Munsell said in a press release.

FSIS said its inspectors will now record information on both the source meat and its suppliers when they sample ground beef and boneless trim for E. coli O157:H7, instead of waiting to see if there is a positive E. coli result before collecting supplier information.


Munsell, or the “meatpacking maverick,” as Mother Jones once called him, has been pressing for such traceback reforms since his own small beef grinding plant was suspended for E. coli contamination in 2002, even though a USDA inspector knew the meat was from an outside plant and had likely been contaminated there.

Although Munsell asked 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 Greeley, CO–the agency did not investigate until a few months later, after an E. coli outbreak sickened 45 people in 23 states.  The meat was eventually traced to the Greeley plant. 

In its notice last week, the FSIS said the new instructions will better serve the agency’s “goal to respond to…positive results by identifying all affected product and all potential suppliers as quickly as possible to protect public health…”



Munsell said the new policy will correct the problems associated with USDA’s “historical policy of focusing its enforcement actions primarily against small, victimized processors” further down the supply chain.

“The agency’s insulation of the large source plants from liability has reaped predictable results: ongoing E. coli outbreaks and recurring recalls.  USDA’s historical policy has provided a comfort level to the agency, circumventing any need for delicate FSIS enforcement actions against the large source plants which enjoy political clout and substantial economic largesse. USDA has been paralyzed with fear of potential litigation emanating from the largest source slaughter plants,” Munsell said.



”Realizing that USDA has long favored the interests of multinational/corporate agriculture over those of consumers and producers, we are hopeful that USDA and FSIS are sincere in elevating food safety to the highest of priorities,” he concluded. “USDA has long been captured by the very industry it is supposed to regulate, and we hope this step is a first step toward reversing that trend.”

© Food Safety News
  • I support wholeheartedly your applauding John Munsell’s efforts and this change. It is long overdue.
    John’s early efforts to improve meat safety (and a similar rule change by the FSIS in 2002 that was reversed 3 months later after the heat was off) are well told in the Government Accountability Project (GAP) investigative report entitled “Shielding the Giant: USDA’s ‘Don’t Look, Don’t Know’ Policy for Beef Inspection” (http://www.whistleblower.org/storage/documents/Shielding_the_Giant_Final_PDF.pdf). It was published in July 2003 and shows how similar things are 7 years later.
    I have no doubt that the FSIS decision was prodded along by Sen. Jon Tester’s Meat Safety and Accountability Act (S 3163) which would legislatively require this action. S 3163 has been bottled up in the Senate Ag Committee.
    Just as both the new Sec. 418 Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Controls (HARPC plans) and the new Sec. 419 Standards for Produce Safety in S 510 only require the FDA to use its existing authority, the Meat Safety and Accountability Act only requires the FSIS to do what it has long had the authority to do.
    Sen. Tester called it what it is–a requirement to act–instead of letting the FSIS save face and masquerading his bill as “new authority,” as Commissioner Hamburg and the supporters of S 510 do.

  • dangermaus

    Again – a MAJOR change in that should have been made long ago that has NOTHING TO DO with the kinds of powers granted to the government in the Food “Safety” Modernization Act bill. How is it not obvious to everyone that the federal government is not using the authority they already have? – yet the FSMA would give them even more (to misuse and abuse).
    Man, I can’t wait for November.

  • I support wholeheartedly your applauding John Munsell’s efforts and this change. It is long overdue.
    John’s early efforts to improve meat safety (and a similar rule change by the FSIS in 2002 that was reversed 3 months later after the heat was off) are well told in the Government Accountability Project (GAP) investigative report entitled “Shielding the Giant: USDA’s ‘Don’t Look, Don’t Know’ Policy for Beef Inspection” (http://www.whistleblower.org/storage/documents/Shielding_the_Giant_Final_PDF.pdf). It was published in July 2003 and shows how similar things are 7 years later.
    I have no doubt that the FSIS decision was prodded along by Sen. Jon Tester’s Meat Safety and Accountability Act (S 3163) which would legislatively require this action. S 3163 has been bottled up in the Senate Ag Committee.
    Just as both the new Sec. 418 Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Controls (HARPC plans) and the new Sec. 419 Standards for Produce Safety in S 510 only require the FDA to use its existing authority, the Meat Safety and Accountability Act only requires the FSIS to do what it has long had the authority to do.
    Sen. Tester called it what it is–a requirement to act–instead of letting the FSIS save face and masquerading his bill as “new authority,” as Commissioner Hamburg and the supporters of S 510 do.

  • It’s nice to see that S.510, the FSMA, would also enhance FDA’s responsibility to keep abreast with food tracing. This should help producers who find themselves in similar situations as the once faced by Mr. Munsell.
    S.510 Sec. 204
    c) PRODUCT TRACING SYSTEM.—The Secretary, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, shall, as appropriate, establish within the Food and Drug Administration a product tracing system to receive information that improves the capacity of the Secretary to effectively and rapidly track and trace food that is in the United States or offered for import into the United States.

  • jmunsell

    I had two primary reasons for going public in July, 2002, to expose USDA/FSIS meat inspection policies: (1) I came to realize that if the agency could implement corrupt enforcement actions at my plant, the agency can successfully do the same at any small plant it unethically targets; (2) I realized the agency could care less about the health of my grandkids.
    I’d like to address the issue of alarmingly high numbers of small plants departing USDA inspection, and the industry. As long as USDA refuses to traceback to the true SOURCE of contamination, the innocent downstream meat plants, which are merely the destination of previously contaminated meat, are assessed with full liability for their possession of contaminated meat. Let’s assume that one or more of my customers had gotten sick after consuming ground beef ground at my facility. Let’s assume they sued me for all expenses, and other damages. I would have been forced to settle out of court, and give my business to them. Meanwhile, USDA would prevent the determination of the true origin of contamination, allowing the source slaughter providers to continue as is, with no corrective actions. And we wonder why we have all these recurring recalls and ongoing outbreaks? One of my concerns is that the agency’s intentional insulation of the large source slaughter plants from accountability is that America’s countryside has become littered with small, shuttered meat processing facilities. Obama’s “Know your farmer” focus is already deep-sixed by USDA’s policies, which target small plants for hyper regulation, while the largest meat plants are deregulated. Hopefully, Notice 58-10 constitutes the first step to bring sanity (& food safety) back into meat inspection regulations.
    John Munsell

  • John Munsell

    I had two primary reasons for going public in July, 2002, to expose USDA/FSIS meat inspection policies: (1) I came to realize that if the agency could implement corrupt enforcement actions at my plant, the agency can successfully do the same at any small plant it unethically targets; (2) I realized the agency could care less about the health of my grandkids.
    I’d like to address the issue of alarmingly high numbers of small plants departing USDA inspection, and the industry. As long as USDA refuses to traceback to the true SOURCE of contamination, the innocent downstream meat plants, which are merely the destination of previously contaminated meat, are assessed with full liability for their possession of contaminated meat. Let’s assume that one or more of my customers had gotten sick after consuming ground beef ground at my facility. Let’s assume they sued me for all expenses, and other damages. I would have been forced to settle out of court, and give my business to them. Meanwhile, USDA would prevent the determination of the true origin of contamination, allowing the source slaughter providers to continue as is, with no corrective actions. And we wonder why we have all these recurring recalls and ongoing outbreaks? One of my concerns is that the agency’s intentional insulation of the large source slaughter plants from accountability is that America’s countryside has become littered with small, shuttered meat processing facilities. Obama’s “Know your farmer” focus is already deep-sixed by USDA’s policies, which target small plants for hyper regulation, while the largest meat plants are deregulated. Hopefully, Notice 58-10 constitutes the first step to bring sanity (& food safety) back into meat inspection regulations.
    John Munsell

  • Once again, Michael Bulger misleads us about what the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510) would actually do. Product tracing requirements analogous to the new FSIS requirement have been in place for produce since the passage of the 2002 Bioterrorism Act. A recent test by the FDA showed how poorly the industrial food system fulfills the current requirements.
    Sec. 204 (Enhancing Tracking and Tracing of Food and Recordkeeping) tells the FDA how to use its existing authority rather that granting new authority. It primarily requires the FDA to do a pilot study and make a report to Congress.
    The subsection cited by Michael Bulger provides the FDA with the desired cover for requiring a particular product tracing system not just the specified information mandated in the existing law. Thus, I, as a small distributor that can easily comply with the current 24 hour requirement for traceback information with paper records might have to actually upload my info in a specified format to an FDA database on a daily basis. Or I might be required to keep the entire record of the journey of a particular item that came through me. That is a very limited “enhancement” at a very high cost.

  • Harry, once again you’ve conjured regulations that are specifically disallowed by S. 510. From Sec. 204:
    (L) not require- (i) a full pedigree, or a record of the complete previous distribution history of the food from the point of origin of such food; (ii) records of recipients of a food beyond the immediate subsequent recipient of such food;
    So much for the FDA’s “cover” you fear so much, eh?
    But it goes further!
    (D) ensure that the public health benefits of imposing additional recordkeeping requirements outweigh the cost of compliance with such requirements;
    (E) be scale-appropriate and practicable for facilities of varying sizes and capabilities with respect to costs and recordkeeping burdens, and not require the creation and maintenance of duplicate records where the information is contained in other company records kept in the normal course of business;
    And the kicker:
    (H) allow any person subject to this subsection to maintain records required under this subsection at a central or reasonably accessible location provided that such records can be made available to the Secretary not later than 24 hours after the Secretary requests such records;
    So much for having to upload an item’s entire journey to a database outside of your business.
    S. 510 requires the FDA to develop a pilot project, evaluate said pilot project, and then write regulations and exemptions and establish its own system for the quick tracing of outbreaks. I know your concerned that this new system will not be utilized. After dispelling your fears about your own businesses future requirements, I cannot help but think your worries on that matter are also overblown.

  • Veganman

    What’s even safer? Not eating beef at all.

  • Once again, Michael Bulger misleads us about what the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510) would actually do. Product tracing requirements analogous to the new FSIS requirement have been in place for produce since the passage of the 2002 Bioterrorism Act. A recent test by the FDA showed how poorly the industrial food system fulfills the current requirements.
    Sec. 204 (Enhancing Tracking and Tracing of Food and Recordkeeping) tells the FDA how to use its existing authority rather that granting new authority. It primarily requires the FDA to do a pilot study and make a report to Congress.
    The subsection cited by Michael Bulger provides the FDA with the desired cover for requiring a particular product tracing system not just the specified information mandated in the existing law. Thus, I, as a small distributor that can easily comply with the current 24 hour requirement for traceback information with paper records might have to actually upload my info in a specified format to an FDA database on a daily basis. Or I might be required to keep the entire record of the journey of a particular item that came through me. That is a very limited “enhancement” at a very high cost.

  • @Michael Bulger: It does not make sense that you keep reciting s.510, since USDA regulated product will not be affected by the law as it is written. Only FDA regulared foods will be affected. Perhaps one of the lawyers on this blog can better clarify then me.