A former small-scale meat plant owner turned activist yesterday hailed an announcement that federal inspectors testing ground beef samples for E. coli will now try to verify where the meat came from.

John Munsell, chairman of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Committee for R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, said he was “quite pleased” with the Oct. 8 notice from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which moves the agency toward a better traceback system.

“Finally, after a battle for more than eight years, FSIS is requiring documentation of source information at the time of evidence gathering,” Munsell said in a press release.

FSIS said its inspectors will now record information on both the source meat and its suppliers when they sample ground beef and boneless trim for E. coli O157:H7, instead of waiting to see if there is a positive E. coli result before collecting supplier information.

Munsell, or the “meatpacking maverick,” as Mother Jones once called him, has been pressing for such traceback reforms since his own small beef grinding plant was suspended for E. coli contamination in 2002, even though a USDA inspector knew the meat was from an outside plant and had likely been contaminated there.

Although Munsell asked the USDA to look up the supply chain to see where the contaminated meat was coming from so it could be recalled–he was sure it was coming from a ConAgra plant in Greeley, CO–the agency did not investigate until a few months later, after an E. coli outbreak sickened 45 people in 23 states.  The meat was eventually traced to the Greeley plant. 

In its notice last week, the FSIS said the new instructions will better serve the agency’s “goal to respond to…positive results by identifying all affected product and all potential suppliers as quickly as possible to protect public health…”

Munsell said the new policy will correct the problems associated with USDA’s “historical policy of focusing its enforcement actions primarily against small, victimized processors” further down the supply chain.

“The agency’s insulation of the large source plants from liability has reaped predictable results: ongoing E. coli outbreaks and recurring recalls.  USDA’s historical policy has provided a comfort level to the agency, circumventing any need for delicate FSIS enforcement actions against the large source plants which enjoy political clout and substantial economic largesse. USDA has been paralyzed with fear of potential litigation emanating from the largest source slaughter plants,” Munsell said.

”Realizing that USDA has long favored the interests of multinational/corporate agriculture over those of consumers and producers, we are hopeful that USDA and FSIS are sincere in elevating food safety to the highest of priorities,” he concluded. “USDA has long been captured by the very industry it is supposed to regulate, and we hope this step is a first step toward reversing that trend.”