Editor’s Note: This is the first part 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.
They say that confession is good for the soul. I’ve been involved in a series of ugly events since my plant in 2002 recalled 270 pounds of ground beef contaminated with E.coli O157:H7 and now want to admit the embarrassing truth for public review.
I co-owned and managed a USDA-inspected slaughter and processing plant for 34 years in Miles City, Montana. When I sold it in 2005, the business had been in my family for 59 years. The primary reason for its sale was problems stemming from my production of E. coli-laced burger in 2002, the details of which I now confess.
First, a description of my meat plant may be helpful. My folks moved to Miles City, Montana the year I was born, 1946, and purchased a very small meat plant. I was the fourth of 10 children. After graduating from Montana State University in Bozeman, MT, and stints with Continental Oil and Target Stores, I returned home to take over the plant in 1971.
Under Dad’s initial guidance, then mine, the plant underwent numerous expansions. Our marketing area in 1946 was limited to our small hometown of Miles City, which boasts a population of 10,000. We eventually delivered to numerous communities in eastern Montana.
Our sales to full-line distribution warehouses allowed our products to be shipped across Montana and into adjoining states. At the peak of our production, we employed 17 people fulltime, and were a substantial member of our rural community. Besides marketing our products to retail grocery markets, restaurants, and a walk-in retail trade, we also benefitted area ranchers who sold their livestock to us. The highest number of beef we processed in one week was 100 head, so we were a small plant.
Since 1970, our plant has been USDA-inspected. USDA inspects meat through its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), initials we will use a lot in this story.
In January 2002, the FSIS inspector at my plant collected a ground beef sample and sent it to the USDA lab for microbial analysis. It tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.
FSIS CAUGHT ME.
When I notified Inspector Dan Ellis (now retired) of the adverse lab results, he immediately replied “John, I wouldn’t worry about it, because it wasn’t your meat I sampled last week.” His memory was correct, because the meat he had sampled was coarse ground beef I had purchased from an outside source-slaughter provider.
Inspector Ellis was a prophet, because after my recall, FSIS quickly finished its investigation, and expeditiously allowed me to resume normal operations after I implemented some minor changes. Interestingly, during a May 3 meeting with FSIS district office personnel, the district office manager told my wife Kathryn and me that inspector Dan Ellis “did not have the right to make that statement.”
This report will reveal many agency attempts to obstruct the full truth, not only at my plant, but also at small plants nationwide.
Because ours was a small plant, our kill floor could not provide all the meat required to fill special customer orders throughout the year. For example, a large banquet or reunion might require several hundred pounds of prime rib roasts, sirloin steaks, ground beef patties, etc. Filling these orders necessitated my purchase of meat from outside source-slaughter providers to supplement meat originating from our own kill floor.
The suggestion to recall the ground beef was made during a telephone conference call with FSIS’s 10-member, multi-disciplinary Recall Committee. The committee members also demanded that I implement corrective actions to prevent recurrences.
Befuddled, I asked this prestigious committee of the agency’s foremost scientific experts what kind of corrective actions I should take, given that the meat causing the recall had originated from a source slaughter provider, and that I had no control over the wholesomeness of meat arriving at my dock. The recall committee’s reaction was … SILENCE!
I exploded with anger and restated the question, but not so tactfully the second time. Finally, one committee member hesitantly suggested that I request a copy of my source slaughter provider’s HACCP Plan, which presumably would describe the steps my provider consistently took to produce safe meat, free of pathogens.
I complied with their request. One document provided me by a supplier was a publication entitled “The Strongest Chain of Safety,” portions of which will be quoted and discussed later in my story. Quickly, FSIS allowed me to again get my plant up and running. (The term “HACCP” will be fully explained in Part 2 of our story.)
The recall notice, released by USDA, made no reference to the fact that the E.coli O157: H7-contaminated meat originated from my source supplier plant, not from my plant. I brought up this issue with the agency’s compliance officer, DuWayne Hansen (now retired).
Compliance officer Hansen stated, “The USDA Legal Department forbids the inspectors to record the origin of the meat.” When I asked Hansen if he would be willing to document the true origin in his report, he replied, “If I would document the origin of meat being sampled, I’d be walking down the road.” For the longest time I did not understand the agency’s refusal to document source evidence of pathogen-laced meat.
Agency policies at that time mandated an additional 15 consecutive days of subsequent sampling after a recall. In theory, results of these 15 samples would indicate if my production of adulterated meat was merely an isolated incident, or if it might have been a frequent occurrence at my plant.
I must admit that in the midst of these 15 subsequent samples, meat samples taken at my plant on three consecutive days (Feb. 19, 20 and 21, 2002) all tested positive for E.coli O157:H7. Talk about a consistently filthy plant! The batches of meat, which caused these three subsequent E.coli O157:H7 positives, had not been shipped into commerce, because I had quarantined the meat, so no recall was required.
I must also own up to the fact that prior to the January recall, I did not maintain a grinding log, which would have documented all source evidence for every batch of meat put into my grinder.
Inspector Ellis and I knew the source meat was coarse ground beef from an outside supplier, but we didn’t know from which supplier, production date, batch number, etc. We purchased coarse ground beef from two suppliers, ConAgra and Cargill.
Because we didn’t know which suppliers’ meat had been used for the test sample, I offered to provide unopened, intact chubs of coarse ground beef from both suppliers to the FSIS, at no charge, for testing at the USDA lab. FSIS declined my offer.
For the longest time, I was flummoxed by the agency’s refusal to test these intact chubs, which would likely have conclusively proved the source of the contaminated meat which had been recalled.
Nineteen months later, in August of 2003, we were finally informed of the reason for FSIS’s refusal to accept the unopened chubs. Following a three-day USDA Office of Inspector
General (OIG) investigati
on at my plant, the agency’s top official in Montana,
Dr. Grady Skaggs (now retired), discussed the issue with me and three other employees. Dr. Skaggs stated that the [FSIS] compliance officer wanted to accept my offer of these chubs at no charge, but staff at the Minneapolis office feared that ConAgra would sue. Given an opportunity to conduct tests that may very well have revealed the true source of E. coli-contaminated meat, FSIS decided not to protect public health, but instead to protect the agency from possible litigation by one of the industry’s behemoths.
A statement from FSIS inspector Abe Waldner (now retired), who collected a sample on Friday, Feb. 22, 2002, further explained this dilemma. Prior to taking the sample, I suggested to him “Instead of taking the sample after it comes out of our grinder, why don’t you simply open up the bag of coarse ground beef from Brand X and take a sample directly from it? It would be more scientific, and would quickly narrow down the true source of contamination.”
He replied, “If I did, I would be guilty of ‘conspiring’ with the plant to point blame at the big packer.” In other words, science-based and unrestricted evidence gathering by inspectors at the time of sample collection is tantamount to conspiracy, and verboten. Over time, I realized that FSIS’s vaunted “abundance of caution” had morphed into an abandonment of caution when testing for E.coli O157:H7.
Over time, it became obvious to me that FSIS prohibits documentation of source evidence throughout the sampling/testing process if there is any chance the evidence might possibly implicate one of the industry’s biggest players.
My 2002 recall taught me the need to fully document all evidence. Fortunately, we had complete source documentation when the subsequent three consecutive days of positive test results occurred in February 2002. When FSIS notified me of the three additional positives, I then reviewed my plethora of evidence, and surprisingly discovered that meat for all three positives emanated from the same outside source provider, from the same production date, and the same batch number at the source provider plant. The labels from those three boxes remain secure in a bank safety deposit vault.
I’m embarrassed to admit my naiveté, but when I discovered that all three positives were from one supplier, with identical production dates and grinder batch numbers, I thought, “Good, now USDA will be forced to change some meat inspection policies.”
Nine years have passed and agency policies have changed very little. FSIS has implemented a few minor changes in policies, while adroitly avoiding meaningful changes that would benefit public health and which will be described in a subsequent portion of this story.
The USDA lab notified me on Friday, Feb. 22, 2002 that the sample collected on February 19 tested positive for E.coli O157:H7. The lab notified me the next day (Saturday) of another positive, and news of the last positive was communicated to me on Sunday. I was caught red-handed, with no gracious exit. I fully anticipated a phalanx of FSIS enforcement officials descending upon my plant on Monday but strangely no one appeared and, odder yet, I received no calls from the agency.
The agency’s disinterest in these three positives seemed a stark contrast to the blitzkrieg of agency officials who immediately confronted me before the recall. A month later, however, FSIS knew that all meat tested on these three subsequent days originated from an outside plant, and not from my kill floor. The agency already knew that the inspector involved had likewise documented all this source evidence, which exonerated my plant. Why is this important? Let’s start by defining the nature of E.coli O157:H7.
E.coli O157:H7 and Salmonella are classified as “enteric” bacteria. By definition, enteric bacteria emanate from within animals’ intestines, and by extension are found on manure-covered hides. Enteric bacteria are different from bacteria such as Listeria, which are environmental.
Because both my plant and my source suppliers slaughter livestock, the E.coli O157:H7 causing these three lab positives could have come from fecal matter from my own kill floor, or from my supplier’s kill floor. Therefore, to prove the true source of this pathogen, and thusmandate corrective actions at the truly noncompliant source slaughter plant, copious documentation of evidence of the source of meat being sampled at the time of sample collection is readily apparent, and should be required in any science-based sampling protocol.
Because at the time of my January 2002 recall numerous agency officials immediately visited my plant to peruse production records, I was prepared for an avalanche of furious FSIS inspectors on Monday, February 25, following the three positive test samples. Strangely, no one came, nor did anyone call.
I smelled a rat.
In an attempt to shame FSIS into investigating all evidence, I stayed at work late that Monday night, and sent an email (at 8:56 p.m.) to the manager of the FSIS district office in Minneapolis, which has jurisdiction over Montana.
The email said other processing plants like mine might also have coarse ground beef from the same supplier, with the potential to cause outbreaks. Referring to these other plants, I concluded “If those plants perform a final grind on that product, and some consumers get sick and/or die, while you and I both know the details spelled out in this email, then … ? Both of us should share a cell in Alcatraz.”
Tact is not always my long suit.
My email did not shame the agency to look at my evidence. FSIS did not send investigators to my plant the following day, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2002. So I stayed at work late again, and sent another email to the Minneapolis district office at 7:35 p.m., repeating my invitation to visit my plant to obtain all evidence.
Finally, perhaps because the manager of the district office loathed the idea of sharing a cell with me at Alcatraz, the agency sent personnel to my plant on Wednesday. In retrospect, I wonder if my suggestion that the district office manager should be incarcerated at Alcatraz earned me the eternal hatred of the agency, a bitterness driving all the agency’s subsequent machinations against me.
Agency investigators arrived in force on Wednesday morning, Feb. 27, 2002, and spent several days reviewing my records. FSIS compliance officer DuWayne Hansen provided me a signed request, officially asking that I divulge the name of the meat plant which supplied me the coarse ground beef which had tested positive on three consecutive days the previous week.
I was ecstatic to have the legal right to provide the name of the plant, the date of production, and the grinder batch number to Hansen. Why did Hansen give me a signed request? Shouldn’t FSIS have the authority to DEMAND all evidence? There is an embarrassing reason for this. In my previously mentioned email to the manager of the Minneapolis district office on Monday, February 25, I made the following statements:
“Since the mere documentation of the origin of trimmings is illegal (I presume) for your inspectors, my release of the same information would also be illegal. I want to fully participate with your staff in addressing the origin of this contaminated meat, but I also know that if I release the information, USDA’s legal staff will have my butt in court the next day. Dr. Clark, I want to cooperate with you 100% in this issue, but the USDA legal staff
Bottom line: before I release to you the information (and I want to), I require signed documentation from the USDA requesting this information, and stating it is legal for me to do so. I’m not gonna sit in jail in return for exposing the source of contaminated meat.”
Armed with all this data, the FSIS officials then retreated to the comfortable confines of the Minneapolis district office to determine what actions to orchestrate against this miniscule plant in southeast Montana. The imbroglio that followed is scandalous, and will be revealed in the second part of my story.
John Munsell now oversees the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, FARE. His website is www.johnmunsell.com