I was standing outside a John Morrell plant waiting for my candidate, who was campaigning inside, when I first heard it. It was such a simple and efficient food safety enforcement tool.
If USDA did not like what was going on inside the plant, its inspectors could just pick up their inspection stamps and walk out the front door. No “Inspected by USDA” stamped on the meat meant it could not be sold. The plant would have to shut down, clean up its act, and ask the USDA inspectors to come back.
This was a long time ago, back in the “poke and sniff” era before the 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak involving Jack in the Box restaurants in multiple states.
And it was definitely before June 13, 2000, when U.S. District Court Judge A. Joe Fish signed an order saying it was “outside the statutory authority” of USDA to withdraw or suspend inspection services or withhold the market of inspection, conclude that an establishment is insanitary, or its products adulterated if it has too much Salmonella in its ground beef.
Fish, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, then “permanently enjoined” USDA from taking any of those actions against Supreme Beef Processors.
Eighteen months later, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Fish’s order.
With poke and sniff out in the new Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) era, Judge Fish was saying a privately held meat packing business, with 500 employees and more than $150 million in annual sales, could continue to do business after failing USDA’s Salmonella tests.
Supreme Beef failed to meet USDA’s Salmonella standard three times in eight months, and in one test 47 percent of its product was contaminated. Oh, and it was selling millions of pounds of beef to the National School Lunch Program at the time.
Unlike E. coli O157:H7, bacteria like Salmonella are not defined as adulterants in meat and poultry. USDA setting Salmonella standards in the HACCP era was part of the overall strategy to control contaminants. The Fifth Circuit sided with Fish and the Bush Administration did not file an appeal with the Supreme Court.
For the second time in a year, however, under the management of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and now Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen, USDA is doing a little push back on that nine-year-old decision.
First in the summer of 2009, USDA brought about the recall of ground beef that was contaminated with Salmonella. The reason? It was Salmonella-resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics.
Then something happened last Tuesday afternoon in Buffalo, NY. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service “suspended operations” at a Tyson’s deli plant, sidelining 480 employees. FSIS took the action as a result of sampling conducted during one of its food safety assessments.
These situations do not line up equally, by any means. For one thing, Tyson’s is one of the best-known and respected food companies on the planet, not an anonymous bottom dweller.
Tyson’s recall of deli meats in August for possible Listeria contamination likely tripped the food safety assessment. Canada’s experience with a Listeria outbreak two years ago, resulting in 22 deaths, has put everyone on alert about ready-to-eat meat plants.
Nobody is yet calling Supreme Beef v. USDA the “Dred Scott” decision of food safety, but it’s good to see that those “Inspected by USDA” stamps are still going mean something and get some respect.