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E. Coli Confession: Part 4

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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.

In May 2005, Dr. Gary Acuff, a microbiologist who heads Texas A & M’s animal science department, conducted a closely controlled scientific study on my kill floor. Its purpose was to validate microbial interventions — hot water and lactic acid spray — for the reduction or elimination of enteric pathogens.  

USDA funded the study in an attempt to develop testing technologies viable for small plants to validate the effectiveness of their kill floor interventions. It involved the development of a surrogate isolate green fluorescing protein (GFP), which mimics E. coli O157:H7.  

This indicator organism demonstrated identical thermal and acid resistance to E. coli O157H7.  On two slaughter days at my plant, the neck regions of each side of beef were intentionally inoculated with either a fresh fecal slurry (from my corrals) or fecal slurry containing the GFP E. coli.  Subsequent to inoculation, all carcasses were washed and placed into our chill cooler.  

Test results revealed that the hot water wash alone on our kill floor reduced the bacteria to an undetectable level, constituting a 4 log reduction. I was astonished that although all carcasses were intentionally inoculated with fresh manure from our corrals, as well as with the surrogate GFP isolate, we nevertheless experienced only a 4 log reduction.

Admittedly, I’m no scientist, and I’m greatly surprised that anyone can experience more than a 4-log reduction, let alone a 7-log reduction.

     

Please note that a hot water wash BY ITSELF reduced all E. coli inoculants to a less-than-detectable level on our kill floor.  Ours is a very small, very slow kill floor, in stark contrast to the fast chain-driven kill floors at the huge slaughter behemoths, which truly need all the interventions known to mankind. 

FSIS simply can’t acknowledge that small plants don’t need the compendium of costly interventions that are absolutely essential at the high-speed plants.  Since small plants do not have all these expensive devices, the agency concludes that small plant owners are not fully committed to food safety.  

Likewise, small plants haven’t hired third-party auditors and PhD scientific experts to independently validate the efficacy of our HACCP Plans, which of course would cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to effectuate.  One central problem within FSIS-style HACCP is that the agency believes a one-size-fits-all HACCP mentality should fit the entire industry.  

FSIS ardently avoids acknowledging that small plants, with snail-paced speeds, effectively prevent and eliminate pathogen-laced carcasses on the kill floor.  FSIS-style HACCP was specifically designed to deregulate the largest plants, and to hyper-regulate small plants.  FSIS is allowed to operate this bifurcated system because the agency is accountable to no one.          

In September 2002, ConAgra officials sold 54 percent of the company to private investors.  The name was changed to Swift and Company at that time.  After the Greeley plant was sold to Swift & Co., did Swift have better lab results?  The Denver Post published an article two months later, on November 17, 2002, entitled “USDA closes Greeley plant.”  One statement in the report was:

“The Denver Post has learned the government had already cited the plant 19 times since late August for allowing meat to become contaminated with feces,” and that “three of those violations occurred in the past week.”

The same Denver Post article on November 17, 2002 included the following statement:

“Swift and Co. spokesman Jim Herlihy defended the plant.  ’This is a regulatory issue,’ he said.  ”It is not a food safety issue.”  

Swift was indeed in a regulatory dilemma with the agency, for ongoing well-deserved reasons. Herlihy conveniently failed to mention that ongoing production of fecal-contaminated carcasses was the cause of this regulatory issue.  At all other plants, when FSIS discovers pathogen-laced meat, the situation is always described as a food safety issue, which Swift attempted to downgrade to a mere “regulatory issue.”  Contrary to Herlihy’s claim, E. coli O157:H7 is indeed a food safety issue, even when it occurs at a Swift plant.

The same Denver Post article also included this statement:

“The USDA pulled about 15 of its inspectors Friday after finding beef carcasses smeared with feces.  Inspectors said they had briefly shut down production several times in the past few weeks because of contamination, each time allowing it to resume when plant officials promised (emphasis added) violations would not recur.”  

FSIS now circumvents initiating enforcement actions based upon an innocuous “promise” that violations would cease.  When the violations continue, well, another promise is all FSIS requires to back off again.  Another premiere example of  ”An Abundance of Caution.”  

To better understand how FSIS allowed this conundrum to occur, we must briefly study a document issued by FSIS.  On Feb. 1, 1998, the agency issued Directive 10,010.1 entitled “Microbiological Testing Program For Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Raw Ground Beef.” 

The publication explains that plants could qualify for an exemption from agency sampling of ground beef for E. coli O157:H7, provided that the plant met certain qualifications. One qualification was that the meat plant conduct routine daily testing, and that the plant had not experienced a positive lab test result for the previous six months.   

The fact that FSIS was not collecting ground beef samples at ConAgra in 2002, but that ConAgra was conducting its own testing, reveals that ConAgra qualified for the exemption.  But something doesn’t make sense here:  since ConAgra had to prove that it had zero lab positives for six consecutive months in order to benefit from this exemption, how could ConAgra later have a “continuous problem” as documented by OIG? 

 

The Greeley Tribune published an article about ConAgra on July 23, 2002, just four days after the expanded recall, which included this statement:

“They [FSIS investigators] found contaminated meat had been processed at the plant on at least 34 days going back to April 12, said Dan Puzo of the inspection service.”  

What happened to the agency’s requirement for six months of zero positives?  

When ConAgra experienced 34 E. coli O157:H7 positives in 100 days, did the company implement corrective actions to prevent recurrences?  If ConAgra did, their corrective actions were woefully inadequate, made possible by the relative absence of any meaningful FSIS oversight.  

The sheer number of subsequent adverse lab results at least leads us to think that corrective actions were NOT initiated.  How could this happen?  Answer:  because of the FSIS deregulated HACCP Hoax, by intentional agency design.

To make matters worse, the OIG investigative report stated:

 

“From April 12, 2002 through October 21, 2002, OIG noted at least 115 e. coli positives at the ConAgra plant.”  

The agency’s unwillingness to confront the known source of E. coli-contaminated
meat, in a timely fashion, is not allowed under the FSIS-style deregulated HACCP Hoax, which of course is “science-based.”  If FSIS-style HACCP is science-based, I am Darth Vader’s fairy godmother.

Let’s return to Directive 10,010.1 that provided the big packers exemptions from FSIS-conducted sampling & testing. The largest plants implemented HACCP on Jan. 26, 1998.  Ironically, FSIS issued Directive 10,010.1 on Feb. 1, 1998, a mere six days later!  Quick payback.  FSIS used this exemption as a reward to the largest plants for their “cooperation” in voluntarily implementing HACCP.  We must remember that under questioning in the mid-90s, FSIS officials stated that the “scientific basis” of HACCP centered on microbial testing; nevertheless, the agency discontinued testing for all practical purposes at the largest plants six days after HACCP was implemented.  Science itself seemed to be changing.  

Directive 10,010.1′s exemption of qualified big packers from agency-conducted sampling explains why an official from the Minneapolis DO rejected my offer to provide unopened chubs of ConAgra and Cargill coarse ground beef for agency testing. 

Rather than sample the intact chubs, and determine the true source of adulterated meat, the agency elected not to test intact chubs of coarse ground beef for fear of litigation.  This is but another example of FSIS being paralyzed with fear of litigation emanating from a large packer.  

Therefore, FSIS places a higher priority on protecting the agency from litigation than on protecting consumers from unsafe food.  When given a golden opportunity at my plant to conclusively determine the true source of contaminated meat, FSIS opted for the more comfortable alternative, which was to eschew litigation with large source originating plants.

The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) was passed in 1906, enabling the federal government to oversee the meat industry.  Less than 100 years later, on Jan. 26, 1998, FSIS voluntarily acquiesced its policing authority back to the industry, all in the name of “science.”  While the FMIA was designed to protect consumers and promote public health, FSIS-style HACCP was designed to promote agency comfort, by deregulating the largest slaughter plants.  

Another superlative example of FSIS-style HACCP’s evisceration of agency authority was observed during FSIS attempted actions against Nebraska Beef in January 2003.  According to a Feb. 20, 2003 article in Food Chemical News, FSIS wanted to withdraw inspectors because of Nebraska Beef’s repeated failure to correct and implement changes in its HACCP plan.  Rather than closing the plant in January 2003, an out-of-court agreement was reached between FSIS and Nebraska Beef.  A shocking revelation was made in the Food Chemical News article:

“Steven Cohen, spokesman for FSIS, told Food Chemical News earlier this month that the main reason the agency settled with the company was to eliminate the possibility that the plant could continue to operate under allegedly unsanitary conditions during months of litigation.”

Cohen admitted that even when FSIS inspectors observed ongoing unsanitary conditions at a plant, the agency lacked the authority to pull its inspectors.  At the very least, FSIS knows that litigation is guaranteed if the agency were ever audacious enough to foolishly attempt meaningful enforcement actions against a big packer.  Cohen was precisely correct, and I applaud his honesty.  Since FSIS voluntarily surrendered its previous policing authority, relinquished its historical command and control power, and aggressively embraced a “hands off” non-involvement role, the agency knowingly abdicated its oversight role at the large plants, essentially tying its hands behind its back. 

 

The agency’s weakness at Nebraska Beef was embarrassing, and the agency had to save face somehow.  Therefore, then-FSIS Administrator Dr. Garry McKee released a statement on Jan. 27, 2003, which attempted to bolster the agency’s PR image.  

The statement referred to the agency’s mandate that Nebraska Beef comply with a series of specific requirements, including:

“The appointment of a full time employee responsible for overall implementation, monitoring, verification, validation, reassessment, recordkeeping, review and maintenance of its Sanitation Performance Standards (SPS), SSOPs and HACCP systems.”

Nebraska Beef, a plant with 1,100 employees, did not have adequately trained HACCP personnel.  In stark contrast, my little plant with 11 full-time employees had four employees who had received official HACCP training in Salt Lake City and Kansas City, all of whom were capable of administering HACCP principles in the absence of the other three.  What a difference plant size makes!

The agency’s legal battles with Nebraska Beef were not yet done.  In a May 8, 2003, article on meatingplace.com, one statement included:

“In two lawsuits filed May 2, Nebraska Beef asked it be absolved of the conditions of the Jan. 24 agreement and alleged USDA’s inspection personnel have, and continue to, treat [Nebraska Beef] in an unfair and biased manner by issuing NRs [written violation notices] for conditions that exist in plaintiff’s plant while plants similar in structure and operations to plaintiff’s plant, in which same conditions also exist, are not issued NRs for the occurrence of those same conditions.”  

The May 7, 2003, edition of the Omaha World-Herald also carried the story, which stated:

“Nebraska Beef Ltd. asked in a lawsuit against the USDA that it no longer be required to abide by the conditions of a settlement it reached with the agency in January.  It filed a second lawsuit against individual inspectors and their supervisors.”

“Since then, Nebraska Beef has received 58 reports of noncompliance of food-safety standards by the USDA.  The company cited the reports as evidence of the inspectors’ bias.

‘They’re trying to send a message to the USDA that some people will fight them every step of the way if they try to enforce the law,’ said (Carol) Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute, which calls for more regulation of the meat industry.”

The fact that Nebraska Beef did not have a full-time HACCP trained individual on staff is but one example of a large plant with no HACCP trained employees.  I attended an “Advanced HACCP/Self Auditing for Meat and Poultry Plants” Workshop in Los Angeles from July 8-9, 2002, sponsored by the National Meat Association (NMA) and conducted by the HACCP Consulting Group L.L.C.  

The trainer was Robert A. Savage, president of the HACCP Consulting Group, and a highly knowledgeable former FSIS employee.  Savage explained the necessity to sell the HACCP ideal to all employees, and to train several employees at every plant.  As an example, he explained how his company had been hired to provide services to a large poultry plant (he didn’t divulge its name) that had more than1,000 employees.  

The poultry plant had originally sent one employee for official training, who then authored a HACCP Plan and related plans for the poultry plant, but did not train anyone else.  This trained employee then left the company, and no one else at the company knew how the HACCP Plan should operate.  

Ironic, that although large plants with more than 1,000 employees didn’t have employees trained in HACCP, my miniscule plant with 11 employees, four of whom had official training, was so abused by agency officials who had an Alcatraz Axe to grind.  Suffice it to say that the agency’s treatment of small plants is bia
sed. 

 

Even when large plants have ongoing, recurring problems from fecal-contaminated meat, FSIS acknowledges it is walking on thin ice if it were ever to be stupid enough to attempt any kind of meaningful enforcement actions.  In stark contrast, hell hath no fury like FSIS when contaminated meat is discovered at small, downstream further processing plants. 

 

One conclusion, albeit temporary, resulting from the agency’s closure of Swift’s Greeley plant was that Swift agreed to slow line speeds to settle the fecal matter issue with the agency.  This event was discussed in a Nov. 26, 2002 article at meatingplace.com.  The article stated that FSIS inspectors closed the plant November 15 following “repeated violations” of the zero tolerance standard for fecal matter on carcasses. 

Why doesn’t FSIS quickly intervene when violations are observed, but instead elects to dilly-dally until repeated violations occur, or 115 positives are documented?  Or, wait for a CDC or local/state epidemiological traceback, which finally forces FSIS into action?  Answer:  FSIS-style deregulated HACCP mandates the agency’s inaction … at large plants.  

At the time of the ConAgra recall, the USDA Under-Secretary for FSIS was Elsa Murano.  The July 25, 2002 World-Herald Bureau discussed the ConAgra recall, and included these quotes from Murano:

“Because ConAgra slaughters 5,000 head of cattle and produces about 800,000 pounds of [boneless] trim daily at the Greeley plant, one or several positive E. coli tests on some days wasn’t cause for alarm.”

“That is not that high a number,” Murano said. 

 

I suggest to you that FSIS was incorrect when it falsely accused ConAgra of having failures in its HACCP Plan.  Sanitation failures on ConAgra’s kill floor created ongoing problems with fecal-contaminated carcasses.  These fecal noncompliances did NOT emanate from theoretical design failures within its HACCP Plan.  

There is a huge distinction to be made here.   If you remember nothing else from this narrative, it is essential you perceive what is occurring here.  During the hide removal process on ConAgra’s kill floor, ongoing mistakes were being made which were unwittingly depositing fecal material onto beef carcasses, as documented in the OIG report.

I contend that any science-based government agency desiring to remedy this problem would intensively scrutinize all kill floor procedures to determine where the failures were occurring, and fix the problems at the SOURCE, which is the kill floor, not a written HACCP Plan based in theory.  FSIS, with all its highly paid PhDs on staff, disagrees with me.  

FSIS places full faith in written HACCP Plans, which is where the agency focuses its investigative efforts following a recall, an outbreak, or adverse lab results.  

It is imperative to realize that plants with theoretically inadequate HACCP Plans can still produce safe food (the meat industry did so prior to HACCP), while plants with superlative HACCP Plans (remember the 7 log reduction claim?) can consistently produce E. coli O157:H7-contaminated meat.  

ConAgra’s debacle is but one example.  Bottom line:  wholesome meat does NOT require a pretty HACCP Plan, decked out with alleged third-party validations, scientific studies, annual certifications, Certificates of Analysis, ad nauseum.  FSIS disagrees. 

 

When introducing its perverted style of HACCP, FSIS took a triangular peg and forcefully pounded it into a round hole.  Likewise, FSIS-style HACCP does not fit into raw meat and poultry reality.  

During the last nine years, I have visited with dozens of plant owners who have experienced adverse lab test findings and/or recalls, all of which resulted in investigations by FSIS.  These plant owners unanimously agreed that 98 percent or more of FSIS time dedicated during subsequent investigations was focused on paper flow and written HACCP Plans in the office. 

Typically, less than 2 percent of investigative time was spent in an obligatory, perfunctory zip trip around the meat plant.  At the end of every investigation, the impacted plant was forced to incorporate additional sentences or paragraphs into its HACCP Plan, implement microbial testing on incoming meat, and perform more paper work.  

The rationale behind these changes is that if the impacted plant had previously had such procedures in place, the plant would not have experienced its adverse lab test results or the recall.  As such, the plant’s production of E. coli O157:H7-laced meat was allegedly caused by the plant’s inadvertent failure to include a written statement in its historical HACCP Plan!  

If readers chose to only remember one paragraph from this narrative, let it be this paragraph.  FSIS investigators ardently avoid meaningful inspection of production lines at source originating slaughter plants, implying that production lines are NOT the source of bacterial contamination.  Instead, FSIS claims that unsafe meat is caused by less-than-perfect paper flow, or theoretically incomplete HACCP Plans at downstream further processing establishments.  Such thinking virtually guarantees ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls. 

 

The agency’s inability or unwillingness to adequately monitor the meat industry is not confined to ConAgra and Nebraska Beef, but is widespread, as discussed in the next part.

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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

    Throughout my career as a City Manager/County Administrator, I have observed an irrational fear by local and state government employees of lawyers who threatened legal action.
    The main reason I have been able to identify for this fear is the lack of funds available to defend against lawsuits, frivilous or not.
    Your description of the FSIS cowering in the face of threats from big company lawyers is consistent with what I have observed at the local level. Obviously, companies with deep pockets are aware of this visceral fear and use their knowledge to limit the effectiveness of regulatory agencies. Small companies such as yours pose little threat in that regard so are more likely to receive the full attention of such agencies.
    The only effective defense is for small companies to organize into large coops or associations and pool legal defense funds to fight back. Even then, it is an uphill battle.

  • desert rose

    HACCP….
    Have
    Another
    Cup of
    Coffee and
    Pray……..