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The ‘Meatpacking Maverick’ and USDA’s New Traceback Policy

If you follow food safety policy, there’s a good chance that when you think of traceback, you think of John Munsell. Once dubbed the “meatpacking maverick,” Munsell has been extremely critical of the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t routinely track the source of E. coli O157:H7 beef contamination unless people are sick.

john-munsell2-183.jpgIn 2002, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service — the billion dollar agency responsible for the safety of America’s meat and poultry — found E. coli O157:H7 in Munsell’s small Montana meat grinding operation. He recalled 207 pounds of ground beef and both Munsell and his USDA inspector notified the agency that the contaminated beef had been sourced from ConAgra’s massive slaughter plant in Greeley, CO.

Instead of looking up the supply chain to pinpoint where the contamination might have occurred, USDA officials shut down Munsell’s business for four months.  A few months later, 45 illnesses in 23 states were linked to E. coli contamination at the Greeley plant. By the time ConAgra recalled 19.1 million pounds of beef, more than 80 percent of it had already been consumed by consumers.

Munsell was incensed. He thought the USDA’s actions were not only unfair, they were not in the interest of public health.

“I came to realize real quickly how disingenuous they were,” Munsell told Food Safety News in an interview. “And I realized that if they could pull this off at my plant, obviously they could do it at all small plants across America. Secondly, I came to realize–I had two young grandkids at that time–that the USDA could really care less about the health of my grandkids. When I came to those conclusions, I decided to fight them every inch of the way and to expose problems within the USDA’s meat inspection program.”

A few years after the ConAgra recall, Munsell became fed up with regulatory red tape, sold his business, and founded the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE) to “protect the rights of legitimate small plant owners in their dealings with USDA” and to advocate better policy. He has been omnipresent in the conversation about meat safety — commenting on blogs and FSIS policies, writing op-eds, and questioning food safety officials whenever possible.

Last week, more than ten years after Munsell’s run in with the agency, FSIS announced that in July it will begin tracing meat contaminated with E. coli back to the source whether or not there are illnesses tied to the product and the agency will start the traceback investigation before test results are even confirmed.

The agency said it would “move quickly to identify the supplier of the product” and then, if a sample is confirmed positive, notify other processors who may have received contaminated meat from the same supplier, which will help keep contaminated meat from consumer’s shopping carts.

On the whole, Munsell is pleased with the move, but cautions that time will tell whether the agency is actually able to roll out the new policy and make it the norm.

“FSIS is to be commended for publicly acknowledging the need for tracebacks to the SOURCE of contamination, the obvious advantages of implementing corrective actions at the SOURCE, and the need for agency enforcement actions when a SOURCE slaughter plant experiences High Event Periods (HEP),” wrote Munsell in his comments to FSIS, obtained by Food Safety News. “Public Health considerations mandate implementation of these traceback activities; thus, enactment of agency traceback policy improvements should not require public or industry “approval” or endorsement.”

Bob Hibbert, an expert on USDA policy at K&L Gates, also believes tracing product back as soon as there’s a presumptive positive “is a step in the right direction,” but noted there could be some issues.  

“Undoubtedly some legitimate concerns will surface regarding the disruptions that could be caused by false alarms,” said Hibbert. “But I think such concerns are outweighed as a general matter by potential public health benefits, and I would hope that they can be mitigated in specific cases through sensible implementation and enforcement.  Once a true food safety threat is identified, it is in everyone’s best interest to eliminate it from commerce as quickly as humanly possible.”

Munsell also points to a long list, roughly 20 pages, of issues that he thinks FSIS should consider, including the possibility that the meat industry might take legal action against FSIS.

In his comments, Munsell said he believes the agency is “treading on thin legal ice caused by its deregulation of the big packers by allowing the industry to police itself.”

“Traceback to the source, and enforcement actions at the source, fall into the category of the need for policies to be made expeditiously, if we have a greater concern for public health than for successful litigation.”

© Food Safety News
  • Carl

    A good start at managing food safety problems. Now, finally, isn’t it time for NAIS and traceback to the farm of origin?

  • Thomas

    One-size-fits-all regulations, like NAIS, burdens small producers with the higher compliance costs that the big industry producers can easily afford. Margins matter and it’s a time-proven way to put the bothersome little guy competition out of business — hence the concentration of ownership — and power –throughout the oligopolistic food system
    These regs are written by and for the industry by their revolving door representatives that populate the federal agencies — the unelected bureaucracy that remains in place no matter who wins the elections.
    Meanwhile,the reality is there’s not far to look where the bulk of the contamination is occurring. It’s part and parcel of the Industrial Meat SYSTEM. Try testing each animal in the finishing pens where the cattle are knee-deep in their shedded virulent E coli BEFORE they enter the slaughter facility…

  • Ruby

    Ah, yes, of course. Our intrepid “small producers” insist upon special half-measures for themselves — too fragile and ineffective to assure food safety for purchasers of their products. Instead these duffers divert attention from their own failings by smearing the functional food system that actually nourishes 300 million Americans 3 times a day, 365 days a year. Shift the blame one step upstream or downstream, whichever is most convenient for the “little guy” to effect a clean get away with your grocery money.

  • This case should provide warning to all food manufacturers in the importance of a robust and effective supplier management system. The knowledge of the source and food safety of all raw materials is imperative.

  • doc raymond

    Ruby, no one is “shifting the blame one step upstream.” They are identifying the source, and notifying other ground beef producers who bought trim from the same lot, that they may have contaminated meat in their plants. Pretty simple, really. Get the stuff out of the market place, or keep it from getting there in the first place.
    Thomas, I do not know one member of the FSIS management council, for any of the Presidential appointees in FSIS, that have ever worked for the meat industry. Maybe you can enlighten me?

  • Kenny Fox

    It needs to be pointed out that e-coli poisoning stems from sloppy packer processing not from live animals therfore no amount of animal id or NAIS will cure the problem. We can have all of the cattle identified to the hilt and we will still have the e-coli problem because the meat carcass is not handled in a clean pristine environment. Animal id or any other NAIS styled animal id program will not and can not solve the sloppy packer processing practices therefore it is a useless, costly experiment in futility. However,trace-back of the meat in question to the packer that processed the meat is where e-coli contamination or any other food-borne illness can be prevented. So let’s not waste time and money chasing rainbows with NAIS or any other animal id program in the name of food safety.
    Kenny

  • Minkpuppy

    Kenny,
    I don’t follow your logic here: “It needs to be pointed out that e-coli poisoning stems from sloppy packer processing not from live animals…”
    THERE WOULDN’T BE ANY PATHOGENIC E.COLI IN THE PROCESSING ENVIRONMENT IF THE LIVE ANIMAL WASN’T CARRYING IT IN THE FIRST PLACE!
    How the heck do you think the pathogens get into the plant? They don’t magically appear there. It doesn’t matter how pristine the environment is if the animals brought in are teeming with E. coli 0157:H7 or Salmonella. Cross contamination can still occur at some point. Remember, it’s humans doing the processing and humans screw up – A LOT. The plant interventions can only do so much–if the pathogen load is through the roof, a 3 log reduction really isn’t that much of an improvement.
    Producers need to understand that they also have a role in reducing the conditions that create pathogen shedding. Prevention has to involve ALL steps of the process, from the live animal in the feed lot all the way through slaughter and processing. E. coli 0157 vaccines aren’t the magic bullet but I do think they can help reduce the amount of shedding prior to bringing the animals to the plants. There’s also some promise in feeding citrus peels to cattle. The peels contain a compound that has an antimicrobial effect on pathogenic E. coli. Anything that the cattle producer can do to reduce the pathogen load prior to entering the plant will have a positive impact on the final product.
    Food safety involves everyone along the food chain from the producer all the way down to the consumer. It’s time for the ranchers to understand that. Believe me, once the big packers decide to do it, they will penalize any beef producers that aren’t using some sort of vaccination program or pathogen reducing strategies in the feed lot.

  • Bud Hazelkorn

    John Munsell lost his family business as a result of the loyalty of FSIS administrators to big business rather than their true constituents, the people. The agency’s refusal to trace back the infected product he had clearly obtained from ConAgra is a perfect case in point. That he has persevered these 10 years, facing ridicule and ruin, is tribute to his extraordinary spirit. Protecting the public when they can’t protect themselves is the proper role of government, and holding government to that role is the proper role of citizens. Good work, John!

  • I feel a clarification must be made here. This whole issue has nothing to do with me. Rather, the issue is exclusively USDA’ unwillingness to challenge the big packers with any kind of MEANINGFUL enforcement actions. That is where the focus must remain.
    Since I went public, I’ve been contacted by many dozens of USDA employees (both working & retired), plus other meat plant owners, all of whom tell me the same story! Therefore, agency misdeeds were not unique to my plant, but are ubiquitous across America. Once I realized that whatever corrective actions I implemented (to prevent my reception of previously-contaminated meat), the agency would reject, and that they were going to close me down regardless, I realized I had nothing to lose, and have exposed the agency ever since.
    Bottom line: FSIS is accountable to no one, as proven by their actions. I’ve never been so disillusioned by the human race as I’ve been when watching FSIS officials continually ignore massive food safety problems at the largest abattoirs, while destroying legitimate, small, downstream further processing entities.
    Again, the focus must be solely on FSIS.
    John Munsell

  • I feel a clarification must be made here. This whole issue has nothing to do with me. Rather, the issue is exclusively USDA’ unwillingness to challenge the big packers with any kind of MEANINGFUL enforcement actions. That is where the focus must remain.
    Since I went public, I’ve been contacted by many dozens of USDA employees (both working & retired), plus other meat plant owners, all of whom tell me the same story! Therefore, agency misdeeds were not unique to my plant, but are ubiquitous across America. Once I realized that whatever corrective actions I implemented (to prevent my reception of previously-contaminated meat), the agency would reject, and that they were going to close me down regardless, I realized I had nothing to lose, and have exposed the agency ever since.
    Bottom line: FSIS is accountable to no one, as proven by their actions. I’ve never been so disillusioned by the human race as I’ve been when watching FSIS officials continually ignore massive food safety problems at the largest abattoirs, while destroying legitimate, small, downstream further processing entities.
    Again, the focus must be solely on FSIS.
    John Munsell

  • Anne

    One of the main reason these animals are carrying so many of these pathogens is that cattle weren’t designed to eat all these concentrates. Put the animals on actively growing forages or stubble and their entire bacterial species make up shifts away from human pathogens. That would go a long way to eliminating many of these pathogens away from our food supply. Feed lots aren’t the place to grow our food, in the sea or on land.