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Off to a Rocky Start

Editor’s note: Last week we concluded a series by John Munsell that explained how his small meat plant in Miles City, MT, ran afoul of USDA’s meat inspection practices. John asked us to post one more article as a coda to his saga.

After my meat plant recalled 270 pounds of ground beef potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 in January, 2002, someone notified me that a lawyer in Seattle had posted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s press release about my recall on his website.

I was incensed. For those of you who know my story, you know that I was madder than hornets at USDA for its misbehavior at my plant. Now, with Bill Marler publicizing my recall on his website, I perceived that USDA benefitted from “relationships” with companies that aided the agency in discrediting legitimate meat plants.

I felt that Bill’s law firm was a not-so-silent accomplice with USDA in hanging out dirty laundry that didn’t belong to me. Prior to this event, I had never heard of Bill Marler, or the Marler Clark law firm.

I immediately called the law firm, and asked for Mr. Marler, who quickly took the call. I introduced myself, and stated that I was aware that he had posted the recall press release that implicated my firm. Because I was anger-driven at the time, I don’t recall the entirety of our conversation.

What I well remember, however, was my intense dislike for this Seattle attorney who gladly posted a USDA press release that was a huge embarrassment to my company, which at the time had been in business for 56 years. I felt that the least this blasted attorney could have done would have been to call me first, and obtain all the details conveniently missing from the USDA’s press release. But no, he had accepted the agency’s press release as fact, and published it without cross-examining either the USDA or me.

  

Bill cordially listened to my story and was willing to look at evidence I offered to mail to him.  I well remember the bitterness that permeated me while I accumulated the evidence to mail. I entertained vain imaginations that Bill and I would someday face each other in court, when I would attempt to discredit him for partnering with USDA to put nails into my coffin.

Funny, the thoughts that go through a businessman’s mind when faced with potential bankruptcy.

  

Bill never called me back to provide his perception of the documents I had mailed him.  I forgot about him until July 9, 2002, when I was waiting to board a plane at L.A. International.  As I read the op/ed page in a major paper, a headline jumped out at me: “Put Me Out Of Business.”  It was an article written by Bill, which jogged my memory of our visit months earlier. Only now, I wanted Bill to eat that very article in the paper. Why? Because ConAgra had just announced a recall of E. coli-contaminated ground beef, a recall this attorney must have been aware of. As such, I figured that Seattle attorney must now feel foolish for ignoring my statements earlier that year. I relished the moment.

To Bill’s credit, following the ConAgra recall he did remove the press release about my recall from his blog. In a subsequent post entitled “One E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak I Think I Could Have Prevented,” Bill stated he was sorry he did not pay attention to my earliest warnings and, if he had, consumers may have been saved from dozens of sicknesses, and one life may not have been lost.  Bill has since told me that the biggest mistake he ever made was not listening to me in early 2002.

I don’t blame Bill; who would ever believe that USDA had gone into semi-retirement at the biggest meat plants, by intentional agency design? It is an incredible story, but one well documented now in 2011, a full nine years later.

Perhaps a few weeks later, Bill called and asked if he could come to Miles City, see my plant, and visit with me. Plans were made. He arrived at my plant one afternoon, we visited, and toured the facility. We had supper at my house later that night, and my wife Kathy and I had a most pleasant conversation with Bill, centered on food safety and consumers.

It was over supper that I met the real Bill Marler, who wasn’t the enemy I had originally envisioned. Both Kathy and I were convinced that Bill truly has a heart for consumer health as he related his visits with families who had suffered from foodborne illnesses. Although I was a meat plant owner and Bill an attorney, we had much more in common than one might imagine from such a combination.

  

Bill briefly visited the meat plant again the next morning before leaving.  Since then, we have kept in touch as outbreaks, changes in USDA meat inspection policies and other situations occurred.  As I subsequently developed relationships with food safety people, microbiologists, and consumer groups, I came to discover that a great many people hold Bill in high esteem. Those relationships were carefully nurtured over many years, during which time folks closely scrutinized Bill’s actions, and were favorably impressed.

Now, when I think back on that newspaper article challenging the meat industry to put him out of business, my attitude has greatly morphed. More than just an attorney, Bill is an advocate for the rights of consumers to anticipate wholesome food. We in the meat industry should do all we can to put this attorney out on the street, and prove to consumers that we sincerely want to earn their business via production of consistently safe food.

So Bill, I just want you to know that not only the meat industry, but also consumers, would like to see your firm go belly up. But you can still come to my place for supper.

————————

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

© Food Safety News
  • doc raymond

    Nice. Too bad some in the industry still say “just cook it”.

  • Steve Sayer

    John,
    Thanks for your excellent series that you just completed. I do hope another major news agency will take what your wrote and broadcast on prime news – better yet a format like 60-minutes. Keep slugging away and kudos to Bill for provided this format.
    Please stay in touch.

  • Minkpuppy

    John,
    Thanks again for your articles. You’ll be interested to know that our daily emails contained links to them on the first 2 days but conveniently missing once you got into the problems with HACCP. I guess they were afraid to wake up the angry inspectors. 🙂
    I was reminded again this week of the silliness of regulatory HACCP. Missing supporting documents for a decision in the hazard analysis when it’s obvious the CCP is going to take care of the problem regardless of whether that article is there or not. It’s one of those things that we are expected to document on an NR. Ugh.

  • Jess C. Rajan, Ph.D.

    Very interesting series of articles. The third article in the series describes a conference call from the Minneapolis District Office (DO):
    “Tuesday July 2, 2002, Kubera called me at 11:11 a.m., on a conference call in which other unidentified DO officials participated as silent witnesses.”
    It appears that the DO officials did not follow the USDA’s requirements for conference calls.
    [USDA’s Departmental Regulation, DR-1710-001:
    “no officer or employee shall authorize, permit, or participate in the monitoring of telephone conversations from, to, or within the Department, or with respect to official business of the Department, for any purpose unless prior and adequate notice is given to, and agreement received from, all participants to the conversation. This prohibits listening in for any reason without the prior approval of all parties to the conversation.”
    “If the telephone call is to be a conference call, all participants in the conference will be fully identified prior to the subject matter of the call being introduced.”]

  • jmunsell

    Jess, I was unaware of this policy. But again, FSIS officials are typically unaccountable for their behavior. And idiots from the outback like me are woefully ignorant of such policies.
    When the original call from the Recall Committee occurred, all ten officials were slowly introduced, and I recorded all their names. There were numerous conference calls emanating from the Minneapolis DO, some of which most likely started with an introduction of all attendees, but frequently did not. Who cares? When the agency deals with small plants, the agency does whatever it desires, because we are a feckless adversary, towards whom the agency shows no fear. John Munsell

  • John Munsell

    Jess, I was unaware of this policy. But again, FSIS officials are typically unaccountable for their behavior. And idiots from the outback like me are woefully ignorant of such policies.
    When the original call from the Recall Committee occurred, all ten officials were slowly introduced, and I recorded all their names. There were numerous conference calls emanating from the Minneapolis DO, some of which most likely started with an introduction of all attendees, but frequently did not. Who cares? When the agency deals with small plants, the agency does whatever it desires, because we are a feckless adversary, towards whom the agency shows no fear. John Munsell