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E. Coli Confession: Part 5

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment in a series written by John Munsell of Miles City, MT, who explains how the small meat plant his family owned for 59 years ran afoul of USDA’s meat inspection program. The events he writes about began a decade ago, but remain relevant today.

On Oct. 12, 2002, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, doing business as Wampler Foods Inc., recalled 27.4 million pounds of fresh and frozen ready-to-eat turkey and chicken products potentially contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

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The recall was prompted by a test of product sample taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Subsequent news articles revealed that USDA-style Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) thwarted the agency’s inspection force from taking meaningful enforcement actions.  The FSIS, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, linked Pilgrim’s Pride poultry to a Listeria outbreak that caused eight deaths, three miscarriages and 45 more illnesses, mainly in the Northeast. 

 

FSIS officials stated that Pilgrim’s Pride knew the Listeria bacteria were present at its Pennsylvania poultry plant months before its products were blamed for killing eight people in the summer of 2002.  Vincent Erthal, who was a federal inspector for the night shift at the Wampler plant until September of 2002, said the company had found an “exceedingly high” number of Listeria bacteria in the plant months before the recall. “This should have been avoided,” Erthal told Reuters. “The plant knew they had a problem. They dragged their feet.” 

Erthal also told the Associated Press that he blamed government agricultural inspectors because of their uncertainty over intervention when harmful bacteria were discovered.  A Dec. 11, 2002 New York Times article reported: “But the inspector, Vincent Erthal, said inspection officials had failed to crack down on some of the problems in part because of what he and other critics see as confusion and indecision in a new federal system for regulating the nation’s food companies.”  

Another news report stated that some congressmen were concerned to have learned the plant had conducted its own environmental tests for the deadly bacteria and found positive results but failed to disclose this information to FSIS inspectors at the time of the testing. 

 

Such statements constitute a disturbing trend. News reports after ConAgra’s recall also revealed confusion within inspection ranks as to what authority the agency had, and companies’ unwillingness to share test results with the agency. 

Then-USDA Undersecretary Elsa Murano said Pilgrim’s Pride employees had routinely tested for Listeria and found “a spike” in July and August for its presence.  However, the company did not share the information with FSIS because federal regulations did not require companies to test for the bacteria.  

A subsequent article in Food Chemical News on Jan. 27, 2003 related how a coalition of public interest groups charged USDA with unfair treatment of an inspector-turned-whistleblower. The article stated in part:

“Vincent Erthal has received treatment by senior agriculture officials that unfairly discredits him, could tend to diminish public interest in his allegations, and consequently, unjustly threatens the integrity of honest public debate, the group wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.” 

 

“The letter says that Erthal repeatedly warned his supervisors of conditions at the facility that lead to the largest recall in history, and on two occasions recommended that FSIS management initiate strong enforcement action.”

“The only crime Vince Erthal is guilty of is being a serial truth teller, said Felicia Nestor, food safety coordinator for GAP.  The USDA’s shameful treatment of him sends a chilling warning signal to all those who might have to weigh whether acting in the public’s interest is a career stopper.”

The previously mentioned Dec. 11, 2002, New York Times article also stated:

“Mr. Erthal, 40, who has been a meat inspector for 18 years, said the new rules have a lot of gray areas. He said inspectors were still taught to step in quickly at any sign of direct contamination.  But when it comes to broader sanitation problems, he and others said, many inspectors are waiting longer to intervene out of a sense that it is now the company’s role to deal with those issues unless there are repeated failures.”  (Personal note:  we are continually reminded to “Let HACCP Work.”)

“Rodney Leonard, a former administrator of the inspection service, said the result is a clear ‘don’t ask, don’t tell mandate’ that is causing inspectors to miss red flags all over the place.”  (Personal note:  how can inspectors ask or tell, when the agency aggressively embraces a “hands off” non-involvement role, no longer authorized to police the industry or to utilize its previous command and control authority?  FSIS-style HACCP has many gray areas.)

“Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and the ranking minority member on the House Committee on Government Reform, said “I think what we’re seeing is a picture of a department that has abdicated its responsibility to protect the public in the area of food safety.”  

Another New York Times report, dated Oct. 10, 2003, continued to reveal systemic problems within FSIS-style HACCP.  This article focused on ongoing fecal contamination of carcasses at the Shapiro Packing Company in Augusta, Georgia, which has more than 700 employees and slaughters 1,200 or more cattle each day.  The article includes the following statements:

“Government inspectors monitoring the automated processing line at the Shapiro Packing meat plant here over the past three years repeatedly (emphasis added) discovered sides of beef mottled with cattle manure.”

“According to government inspection reports, on more than 50 days from early 2001 until July, inspectors at the Shapiro Packing plant found feces on carcasses moving down the processing line.  Its meat ends up in schools, supermarkets and fast-food restaurants across the country.”

“On 11 days the inspectors at the plant even found the manure on numerous carcasses that had already been through special cleansing washes of hot water and acid.”

“In the last five months of 2002, inspectors found fecal contamination (on carcasses) about every 12 days.”

“This year brought little improvement. Government inspectors found feces on 12 days in the first six months of 2003.  But the documents show that the company’s own employees discovered far more.  In January and May, Shapiro employees found feces on meat about every other day.”  

“The employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that some inspectors became frustrated that their superiors appeared to ignore problems that they had carefully detailed in documents called noncompliance reports, which are commonly referred to as N.R.’s (Personal note:  This is eerily similar to statements found in USDA’s OIG criticism of FSIS lack of oversight at ConAgra in 2002.)

What were FSIS responses to the variety of inspector documentations of ongoing fecal contamination of carcasses?  The same New York Times article stated:

“In March, a safety officer visited Shapiro’s slaughterhouse to monitor its E.coli controls.  The officer took no action, even though the documents show that inspectors had already reported fecal and other contamination of meat on 13 days in the first two months of the year.”

“Last November the inspectors also found E.coli O157:H7, a dangerous bacterium spread by cattle waste, in hamburger and stopped a shipment waiting to go to public schools from a Shapiro meat-grinding facility.  Yet the Department of Agriculture delayed more forceful actions and never did more than threaten to shut the packing plant down.”  

Recurring examples of FSIS’ systemic inaction at source slaughter plants, in spite of ongoing production of fecal-contaminated carcasses, have become commonplace.  The agency intentionally relegated itself to the role of a disinterested bystander when it mandated its style of HACCP at all USDA-inspected plants.  

Furthermore, FSIS kept its inspectors in the dark regarding their authority under the new FSIS-style HACCP.  During the mid-late 90s, FSIS officials publicly stated that the agency would train inspectors in HACCP protocol using a “Just in Time” methodology.  As late as 2002 and 2003, inspectors at my plant kept asking me for HACCP answers, admitting that they had received precious little training yet.  

Inspectors nationwide were forced to ask plant management for advice on how HACCP is to work, both for the agency and for the industry.  Lack of inspector training was discussed on page 10 in the December, 2002 edition of Meat Marketing and Technology (MMT), which interviewed Dr. Garry McKee, the new FSIS Administrator.  The discourse went like this:

MMT:  ”Some point to the inconsistencies in HACCP interpretation between line inspectors and supervisors as evidence that field personnel haven’t been trained properly.  How do you respond to that?”

McKee:  ”Inspector training is a serious issue; I don’t deny that.  More training is scheduled, and one of my top goals is that all inspectors better understand HACCP.”

Interestingly, almost five years after the large plants rolled out HACCP, FSIS had not yet adequately trained its inspectors.  In many cases, the industry was performing the training. 

 

Six months later, Dr. McKee wrote an article that appeared in the June 2003 edition of Meat Processing. He said:

“One of our top priorities is to cultivate a highly trained and educated workforce. Funding in our FY 2004 budget now before Congress provides specialized food-safety training to inspectors and other food-safety professionals. In addition, FSIS issued a new directive to its employees that will provide FSIS field personnel with greater understanding and knowledge about their role and responsibilities in safeguarding the American food supply. This is the first set of comprehensive instructions given to inspectors since the inception of HACCP in 1997  (emphasis added).

In the mind of FSIS, this is “just in time” training; 1997 to 2003 doesn’t qualify for “just in time.” 

 

Several months later, Dr. McKee made some interesting comments to a conference of agency supervisors in Nashville, TN, on October 27, 2003.  Various news articles included the following quotes:

 ”McKee said he is tired of reading articles that quote inspectors as saying they don’t have the authority to take action against a plant that’s violating its own HACCP plan or FSIS regulations.”

‘Or isn’t it likely that something is amiss in a plant that gets a lot of positives for E. coli O157:H7 and that maybe we should do something about it on a system-wide basis?,’ he asked, referring to the repeated positives at the ConAgra plant.”

“And lately, there have been many illogical and unnecessary failures.”

“As for reaction from the inspectors, Stan Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, said, ‘it all sounds good and wonderful that inspectors have all these rights and authority, but that’s not what’s happening.’  Painter said that supervisors ‘think they’re God,’ and that they don’t want to relinquish any authority to underlings who don’t have veterinary degrees. Supervisors think inspectors don’t have the knowledge, skills or ability to make decisions, Painter told Food Chemical News.”

“Painter pointed to the fact that in some plants, inspectors can’t call a fecal failure on their own. They have to wait until their supervisors say, ‘this is fecal material,’ Painter said. If inspectors can’t even call fecal material, what action can they take beyond that?”

One article stated:

“The speech….was starkly honest about FSIS gaffes and was filled with admonitions that the inspection force must be more responsible and accountable.”

The Nov. 11, 2003 edition of USA Today cited this quote from Dr. McKee’s speech:

“Protecting public health is more than filling out forms. It involves taking responsibility, McKee said.”

Dr. McKee’s tenure as FSIS Administrator was short-lived.  My personal perception is that his demand for personal responsibility being more important than filling out forms may have been his agency death knell. FSIS-style HACCP is all about paper work, totally divorced from personal responsibility, which would dictate that recurring instances of fecal-contaminated carcasses should justify agency intervention. FSIS-style HACCP makes no allowance for common sense, or personal responsibility. FSIS-style HACCP also insulates the agency from any accountability, since the deregulated industry can now operate in the relative absence of any meaningful government oversight.  

FSIS has changed some policies that now allow agency access to results of company-conducted testing, found in FSIS Notice 54-03 released on Dec. 16, 2003; in FSIS Notice 39-08 released on June 6, 2008; and in FSIS Directive 5000.2, Rev 2 released on Dec. 4, 2008.  FSIS Notice 58-10, released on Oct. 8, 2010, now requires inspectors to collect supplier information at the time of sample collection.  However, these changes have not dramatically reduced the number of outbreaks and recalls. 

  

This narrative has quoted media articles revealing inadequate agency oversight at ConAgra, Pilgrims Pride, Nebraska Beef and Shapiro Packing in 2002 and 2003. Both FSIS and the industry initiated changes since 2003, which resulted in a diminution of outbreaks and recalls in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

The year 2007 brought us back to reality, with numerous outbreaks and recalls, which have in fact persisted to the present day. Recalls in 2007 through 2011 are constantly reminding us that FSIS-style HACCP is not the scientific panacea as originally suggested, and direly needs dramatic mid-course corrective action.

Following is an incomplete but interesting list of some of the largest E.coli and Salmonella recalls we’ve experienced during the last five years:

June 6, 2007 United Food Groups 5.7 million lbs E.coli O157:H7

Nov 1, 2007 General Mills 3.3 million lbs (Pizza ) E.coli O157:H7

Nov 3, 2007 Cargill 1,084,384 lbs E.coli O157:H7

Oct 6, 2007 Cargill 845,000 lbs E.coli O157:H7

April 20, 2007 HFX Inc 259,230 lbs E.coli O157:H7

Oct 13, 2007 J & B Meats 173,554 lbs E.coli O157:H7

July 3, 2008 Nebraska Beef 5.3 million lbs E.coli O157:H7

June 25, 2008 The Kroger Co. 1,613,122 lbs E.coli O157:H7

Aug 14, 2008 Nebraska Beef 1.36 million lbs E.coli O157:H7

May 16, 2008 JSM Meat Holdings 345,000 lbs E.coli 0157:H7

January 12, 2008 Rochester Meat Co 188,000 lbs E.coli O157:H7

Aug 6, 2009 Beef Packers 825,769 lbs Salmonella

July 22, 2009 KINGS Soopers 466,236 lbs Salmonella

June 28, 2009 JBS Swift        380,000 lbs E.coli O157:H7

Dec 24, 2009 National Steak 248,000 lbs E.coli O157:H7

May 21, 2009 Valley Meats 95,898 lbs         E.coli O157:H7

Jan 18, 2010 Huntington Meat        864,000 lbs E.coli O157:H7

Feb 12, 2010 Huntington Meat         4.9 million lbs ADULTERATED

(Please see the next paragraph below which describes what is meant by “adulterated” in this unusual situation at Huntington Meat.)

Jan 23, 2010 Danielle International 1,263,754 lbs Salmonella

Aug 6, 2010 Valley Meat Co 1 million lbs E.coli O157:H7

April 21, 2010 Beltex Corp 135,000 lbs E.coli O157:H7

April 1, 2011 Jennie-O Turkey 54,960 lbs        Salmonella

March 22, 2011 Palmyra Bologna Co 23,000 lbs        E.coli O157:H7

March 8, 2011 Creekstone Farms 14,158 lbs        E.coli O157:H7

Feb 5, 2011 American Food 3,170 lbs        E.coli O157:H7

The afore-mentioned Feb. 12, 2010 recall at Huntington Meat Packing was an expansion of its earlier January 18 recall.  The initial recall covered 864,000 lbs of beef products that may have been contaminated with E.coli O157:H7.  Interestingly, the expanded 4.9 million lb recall was not for E.coli, but for the classification “adulterated.”  A news article in the February 15 edition of “Food Production Daily” provides the following interesting data:

“Huntington Meat Packing Inc. has recalled a further 4.9 million pounds of meat that was not processed in line with the company’s HACCP plan over the course of almost a year, said U.S. authorities.”

“The products are adulterated (emphasis added) because the company made the products under insanitary conditions failing to take the steps it had determined were necessary to produce safe products, said an FSIS statement.”

“This evidence shows that the products subject to this recall expansion were produced in a manner that did not follow the establishment’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan, it added.”

It is interesting to note that FSIS concluded that since the company did not fully comply with its HACCP Plan, all product produced during the period of noncompliance was “adulterated” over almost a full year. 

Even though FSIS inspection personnel were at the plant every day during the noncompliance time frame, the inspection force did not observe any insanitary conditions during the entire year.  This lack of adequate agency oversight of alleged long-term insanitary conditions at the plant is not reassuring to public health interests.  

The agency’s allegation of insanitary conditions and recurring “adulteration” of products for almost a full year (occurring directly under the agency’s nose) reveals that the primary god FSIS serves is the company’s HACCP Plan, demoting the agency to that of an auditor of paperwork, absent any meaningful oversight of meat production lines. 

This serves as another example that FSIS perceive
s that unsafe food is produced by noncompliance with written HACCP Plans, and not by insanitary meat production lines.

Please note also that Huntington Meat Packing does NOT slaughter, but merely further processes meat purchased from source slaughter providers.  Therefore, since FSIS concludes that all meat Huntington produced during the year of noncompliance is “adulterated,” we must conclude that Huntington purchased previously contaminated meat from its source slaughter providers for almost a full year.

 I am not aware that the agency initiated any enforcement actions against Huntington’s source slaughter providers, but focused all its enforcement actions against Huntington. Not because Huntington introduced adulterants into its meat, but because it did not fully comply with its HACCP Plan. This is a most important distinction, which awkwardly reveals the agency’s misguided focus, gratis FSIS-style HACCP. 

 

Huntington’s initial recall was for 864,000 lbs of meat possibly adulterated with E.coli O157:H7, which Huntington unwittingly purchased from source slaughter providers.  In the aftermath of the ensuing extension of the expanded 4.9 million pounds of additional meat, did the agency’s intensive investigation ever determine the true slaughterhouse SOURCE of the pathogen?  No.  The source of the E.coli O157:H7 was never determined; therefore, no corrective actions were required at the source, guaranteeing that public health continues to be imperiled.  

The majority of E.coli and Salmonella recalls this century occurred at plants that have been fully compliant with their written HACCP Plans.  If this was not the case, FSIS would have mandated expanded recalls in all cases, justified by the plants’ noncompliance with their HACCP Plans.

Therefore, we must admit that the vast majority of recalls and outbreaks have been caused not by HACCP Plan failures, but because these pesky enteric bacteria continue to circumvent the best of HACCP Plans and furtively escape into the food chain, all caused by sloppy dressing procedures on the kill floor.

Admittedly, since Huntington was caught in the act of intentionally not complying with its written HACCP Plan, the plant is liable for administrative deficiencies and must face agency enforcement actions.  However, the agency’s “suggestion” to recall an additional 4.9 million pounds of meat only resolved the administrative noncompliance, with limited if any benefit for safe food considerations.  But the 4.9 million lb recall expansion certainly provided PR benefits for FSIS.  Who cares if the expanded recall has any benefit for consumers?  

Four of the above recalls are still in the agency’s “Active File,” meaning the recalls have not been completed, which would have allowed the recalls to be retired to the agency’s archives.  The Feb. 12, 2010 recall from Huntington Meat Packing is still active, as is the April 21, 2010 recall from Beltex Corp.  Interestingly, both of these recalls are over 13 months old, but have yet to be closed out.  Both the March 22, 2011 and the April 1, 2011 recalls are likewise still open.  

However, both FSIS and the industry’s biggest packers are in full agreement that consumers are THE ULTIMATE THREAT to food safety, and that consumers must step up to the plate and accept responsibility for these ongoing outbreaks.  This attitude by FSIS and the industry’s biggest players will be described next.

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John Munsell now oversees the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, FARE.  His website is www.johnmunsell.com

© Food Safety News
  • Larry Andrew

    Well John….so far this is a story told so well that I am on the brink of becoming a vegan….Oh, wait…can’t eat fresh veggies and fruit either because of listeria, salmonella, etc.
    So…let’s see…how about nuts…oops, my wife almost died from eating PCA salmonella contaminated peanut crap…
    So….maybe baby food…that must be safe…wait…

  • jmunsell

    Larry: a convoluted scenario, ain’t it! My intention is not that consumers should be concerned with food, but rather we should be concerned with a federal bureaucracy more focused on semi-retirement at the industry’s biggest plants than protecting public health. John Munsell

  • John Munsell

    Larry: a convoluted scenario, ain’t it! My intention is not that consumers should be concerned with food, but rather we should be concerned with a federal bureaucracy more focused on semi-retirement at the industry’s biggest plants than protecting public health. John Munsell

  • Leon

    Well, I think this story compels a different conclusion than the one Mr. Munsell reaches. After 100 years the government has failed to effectively regulate food safety. Suppose the government had never gotten involved. What would have happened?
    Let’s look at how American companies do business in China. The Chinese government is effectively nonexistent. Nevertheless, we now get many very good products out of China. This has happened in a few short years. How did it happen? Well, in the absence of government regulation companies are forced to take steps to make sure they get quality products from those factories. Very simply, they demand quality.
    With Bill Marler looking over their shoulder, retailers and processors have plenty of incentive to demand safe products down the supply chain. We are finally starting to see retailers send their own people to vet their suppliers. This would have happened a long time ago if there was no government intervention. Why didn’t it happen anyway? The lesson of regulation is that it either shifts risk away from the appropriate party or creates the perception of safety which invites complacency – or both. It inevitably gets co-opted by big money, which actually makes the situation worse.
    For those of you who reflexively reject this idea, go back and read the article again. Regulation has failed, period. You can keep trying to make government regulation work while somehow expecting a different result. Most people call that insanity.
    If you can’t see that then you need to consider the possibility that you are caught in the grip of a lifetime of progressive groupthink. It really is possible that government is not always the answer. Stop assuming that it is.
    The simple, rational solution is to let the buyers force the sellers to provide a safe product. It should have been done a long time ago.

  • Jon

    You can always tell a reasonable person who is open to revising their opinions as a result of logical discussion based on the facts when they they take the time to spell out the word PERIOD. People like this are never blinded by ideology no matter how simple and indoctrinated they may seem.

  • desert rose

    yes we’ve gotten a lot of products from China….contaminated dog food by product, toys for our kids with high levels of lead in them, apple concentrate with arsenic in it, contaminated honey….

  • Steve

    Leon….using China as an example of a sucessful “non-existent” government is laughable. NOTHING happens in a village on up without approval of the Party– from the land you get to use as a farmer to who gets a factory license to who exports what and where….
    It’s also interesting that the Party Elite gets their food supply from specially sanctioned organic farms — while the rest of the population takes their chances with the corrupt food system that desert rose refers to…

  • Joe

    Leon–
    You can’t seriously suggest that we adopt the Chinese methodology of food safety. There are dozens of reasons why such a plan would amount to national food safety suicide. We must assume you’re kidding.
    Much more reasonable is for consumers to buy their meat locally.
    The multinational meatpackers and food dealers want to import any and all junk meat dumped into any country with a reciprocal trade deal with the US and then transship it to the US and sell it as US meat to the unsuspecting public.
    The meatpacker special interests took all the teeth out of the Congressionally-mandated COOL, thus opening consumers and producers to the dangers of unsafe food and deceitful sales practices.