PART I: An Introduction to John Munsell, the ‘meatpacking
maverick,’ who blew the whistle on the largest meat recall in American
John Munsell, dubbed the “meatpacking maverick” by Mother Jones, has spent much of his life on the front lines of food safety.
2002, Munsell told the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that his
small meat grinding operation had been receiving E. coli-positive beef
from ConAgra’s massive plant in Greeley, Colorado and that something
needed to be done about it. Instead of launching an investigation into
the Greeley plant, the USDA shut down Munsell’s business for four
months after an agency inspector collected a positive E. coli sample
from ground beef produced in his plant.
months later, the Greeley plant recalled 19 million pounds of beef
after an E. coli outbreak that sickened 45 people in 23 states was tied
to its product. Over 80 percent of the recalled meat had already been
consumed by the public by the time USDA announced the recall in the
Summer of 2002.
Munsell operated his
small-scale USDA-inspected meat plant in Montana for 34 years. The
business had been in his family for almost six decades when he sold it
in 2005 after becoming fed up with USDA politics and ‘burdensome’
Food Safety News
had a chance to chat with Munsell about the ConAgra outbreak, the
current state of meat regulation, and what he thinks should be done to
improve food safety.
Q: How did you become a meat regulation activist?
It boils down to this… in 2002 we were involved in a recall of about
270 pounds of ground beef that was contaminated with E. coli. That was
a result of at test that was collected by the USDA inspector assigned
to my plant.
The inspector and I both knew and
we stated that the meat that was sampled was from an outside plant–it
wasn’t my meat. Our plant not only slaughtered animals, but we brought
in a lot of meat from the outside. In this particular sample, the
inspector and I both stated it was meat purchased from the outside.
that time, whenever a plant did have a recall, the USDA had to follow
it up with 15 subsequent consecutive days of additional sampling. In
the midst of that there were three consecutive days in which the
samples collected by the inspector turned up positive for E. coli. Both
the inspector and we observed that [the meat that tested positive] all
came from ConAgra.
Now the battle was on.
USDA intentionally hung me out to dry. They ignored the fact the bad
meat I had had come from an outside plant. So, I had to make some
changes to my HACCP plan. I made about 14 changes and they kept turning
them down. It was probably unprecedented in the history of American
inspection–14 changes all denied.
what happened is that the ConAgra plant that sold me this meat
announced a 19 million pound recall. Well then, all of the sudden,
overnight, the USDA accepted my changes and allowed me to grind
again–but for four months I was not allowed to grind.
came to realize real quickly how disingenuous they were. 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. I continue working on that to this day.
Q: You called the recent E. coli beef outbreaks out of New England “embarrassing…”
I say it’s embarassing, because it should be embarassing to the USDA
that, in spite of their “science-based” meat inspection program we have
all these ongoing outbreaks and recalls. It should also be embarrassing
to our industry.
It’s been 11 year since the
biggest packers implemented the HACCP program. You’d think that by this
point the program would be maturing and paying dividends, but in fact
it’s going the opposite direction.
to finally realize that the consuming pubic are going to see through
this–this façade. At times I wonder if the word “embarrassing” is not
the right word. The overarching, more important concern is food safety
and sick consumers and people who are dying.
People are dying. A lot of people are getting sick, this should be an embarrassment to this industry, and to the USDA.
Q: Have you been keeping up on the media attention on meat safety–in the New York Times, Larry King Live, Time, etc?
A: Yes, I keep up on all that. A great many people read [the New York Times article] and the big players in our industry shot it down.
Michael Moss hit the nail on the head. We do have ongoing problems. The
USDA is not the least bit concerned about going to the root of the
problem, and getting the source to clean up their act.
is much more willing to go down to your local Safeway store–which
unwillingly inherits previously contaminated meat–the USDA is much
more likely to throw its enforcement hammer against the destination of
previously contaminated meat instead of going to the source, which is
these big multinational packers.
Q: What is the root of the problem–do you think there is a tension at USDA
between promoting the industry and protecting the consumer?
A: Have you heard of the term “agency capture”? That’s the terminology
used to describe the situation in which a government regulatory agency
is captured by the very industry that it supposedly regulates. That is
precisely what has happened here.
that the agency has been captured by, is controlled by, big packer
interests. The revolving door certainly is also detrimental to the
cause of public health.
There is a direct conflict between promoting agricultural products and regulating the industry that creates those products.
If indeed a big packer produces some bad meat, the USDA is less likely to take aggressive steps against that big packer. And you know, let’s just face it–the big packers get bigger all the time. Probably five years
ago it was stated that 80 percent of the feedlot cattle in this country–feedlot fattened steers and heifers–80 percent were slaughtered by the top four companies. Now its 88 percent.
The big get bigger, the small get smaller, and go out of business.
You’ve been very vocal about your belief that HACCP [Hazard Analysis
and Critical Control Points] systems employed by the meat industry are
‘a hoax.’ If you were writing the meat safety rules, what would they
A: Number one, HACCP was
advertised as being science-based, and it is not. HACCP was designed by
Pillsbury 20-30 years ago. They were making fully-cooked, ready-to-eat
food for the astronaut program and it had to be guaranteed safe. Well,
those were highly-processed, fully-cooked ready-to-eat-foods–the
pathogens would be cooked out–they all had a real “kill step.”
the USDA saw the HACCP program and thought, ‘Gee, that sounds really
good. Lets apply that meat inspection.’ The problem is the vast
majority of what we process in meat plants is not fully-cooked,
ready-to-eat, it is raw.
The USDA shouldn’t use the term HACCP unless the products they are working with are fully cooked.
two, when the agency required the industry to implement HACCP, the
agency said that under the program the USDA’s role would be hands-off.
That is an absolute disaster.
The USDA cannot be hands-off.
the transition to HACCP, the USDA knowingly acquiesced its authority
back to the industry. It’s an absolute disaster waiting to happen.
natural long-term consequences of the agency adopting a hands-off,
non-involvement role is ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls all the
HACCP cannot work in the raw meat industry.
really think that meat inspection should be moved from the USDA, and
that a separate agency should be created to perform inspection of not
only meat and poultry but also produce, which is currently assigned to
Q: Lets talk about the point
of contamination. Where in the supply chain should we be focused? If
the downstream processors are punished for contaminated meat, how would
you solve that problem?
A: We know that Salmonella and E. coli are enteric, which means it is being introduced into the food stream at the slaughterhouse.
think it makes obvious sense for the USDA to increase their inspection
of and sampling at the slaughter plants. And when they find problems
there, they need to force the source plants to clean up their act.
Unfortunately the agency’s primary focus now is at the downstream
They are so intentionally deceptive.
The USDA says downstream plants should put pressure on source or
slaughter providers to ship them consistently safer meat. Well, these
downstream plants have no power. They cannot control the wholesomeness
of the meat they receive from the big packers, nor can they put
pressure on them.
It would be my suggestion
that the USDA implement a horrendous increase in the amount of samples
that the agency collects at the originating slaughter plants, and that
the results of all those tests should be made available to the public.
My contention is that, within two weeks, the whole world would know
which slaughter plants are noncompliant and have a high percentage of
Q: Since you are so
familiar with meat processing, I really want to dig into this issue
about how to prevent contamination–you sent me an email about CAFOs
(Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), and their right to exist. In
a concentrated feedlot you’re going to have animals covered in feces,
that is just the reality, but isn’t that part of the problem, that the
animals are so filthy?
A: In our
facility, we were very small, we would kill maybe 15 to 20 beef in one
day is all. We were not automated. The big plants, the maximum speed
they are allowed is 390 head per hour.
Q: Have you been to one of these big plants?
Mhmm. It’s amazing how automated and how fast they are. I’m not
criticizing them–I’m just saying, it’s part of the American dream, you
know to be highly automated. Because of the fact that the carcasses are
going down the line so quickly, it appears to me that neither the USDA,
nor the employees of the packing plant have an adequate amount of time
to inspect those carcasses, and in fact that is part of the whole ideal
of HACCP is that–you know, everyone admits that those big packers are
leaving hair and fecal matter on carcasses–but at the big plants they
have implemented certain interventions. For example, they will spray
lactic acid on the carcasses, or steam vacuum them. The industry claims
these are 100 percent safe and successful, well obviously it’s not safe
E. coli exists in cattle
naturally–and maybe 20 percent have the bad kind of E. coli in their
gut. So in the CAFOS, all those animals in there shed their manure and
then roll around and sleep in each other’s manure–in fact in the
spring when the ice melts they really are living in a pathogen
soup–they are sharing each other’s pathogens.
For right now, we need to put a lot of emphasis on finding vaccines.
lets just say a vaccine removes 90 percent of the bad E. coli, well
what about the remaining 10 percent? Whose responsibility is it that
the bad E. coli doesn’t end up in raw meat? Well, that still then falls
on the slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouses are not doing an adequate
job of preventing cross-contamination.
might mean that they have to slow down their chain speeds, and they
have to put more people on the line, whatever is necessary.
the interventions they have now do not remove all the pathogens, so I
say until they can come up with interventions that do, they need to
slow down chain speeds.
The bottom line is they need to test more often and find out where those problems are and how to fix them.
back tomorrow, for PART II of our discussion with John Munsell for more
on his take on HACCP, the pending food safety legislation for
FDA-regulated products, and on what he considers burdensome federal
(Munsell also recently contributed an article to Food Safety News, “E.coli Outbreaks: A New Way of Life.”)