Editor’s Note: This is the third installment 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.
On June 30, 2002, after my grinder had been shut down for four months, ConAgra’s plant in Greeley, CO, recalled 354,200 pounds of beef products that were potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.
Yes, this is the same plant identified by the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Dr. Daryl Burden in his March 1, 2002 hand-written letter as the source of the beef ground in my plant. That was the letter that the Minneapolis District Office (DO) cautioned me to never mention again. The chickens had come home to roost. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture was incapable of covering up the truth over a prolonged period.
Out of the ostensible goodness of its heart, the Minneapolis DO expeditiously granted me the right to grind again under inspection, subsequent to the ConAgra recall. This was an unexpected act of gracious altruism on the agency’s part, because in its opinion I had not implemented any meaningful corrective actions in the interim to deserve this reprieve.
Events that were totally out of my control had intervened to my benefit, and to the benefit of public health.
Please bear with me, because I must provide evidence embarrassing to the agency that reveals exactly why the Minneapolis DO begrudgingly granted me the right to grind again. On or just prior to Monday, July 1, 2002, the agency’s Number 1 official in Montana, Circuit Supervisor Dr. Grady Skaggs, explained to me three demands mandated by the Minneapolis DO that I must incorporate into my HACCP Plan. If I complied with these three demands, the Minneapolis DO would allow me to grind again.
My immediate reaction was that the agency had promised the industry that we could write our own HACCP Plans, and that FSIS could not tell plants what must be in our HACCP Plans. Nevertheless, these three agency demands, which were delivered to me by Dr. Skaggs, mandated that I include sampling for E. coli O157:H7 as a critical control point in my HACCP Plan.
The mandate also required that my sampling protocol would separate (for sampling purposes) meat from my own kill floor, distinguished from the meat I purchase from outside source slaughter providers. I was agreeable to these agency demands, since compliance with the demands would allow me to grind again.
But there was a potential deal breaker. I wanted to document for posterity that my willingness to comply would also show that the agency was mandating these changes. Acknowledgment that these three changes were agency mandates was what the Minneapolis DO wanted to avoid, but what I insisted on.
Therefore, I typed a letter on July 1, 2002, explaining my willingness to comply, but also specifying the mandate behind these changes, and I emailed it to Dr. Nathaniel Clark and Roger Kubera at the Minneapolis District Office.
How did the DO respond?
Roger Kubera, Inspection Coordinator at the DO, responded on July 2, 2002 in an email explaining my responsibilities as a plant owner and stating, in part: “I would not see a problem with the proposed recommendations that you are requesting to include in your HACCP plans, along with the supporting documentation. If this is what you want to do.” (emphasis added)
Kubera cut to the quick, emphasizing that I must want to make these changes, that is, my suggested changes ostensibly originated from my own voluntarily desires, ignoring that my “desires” were merely a repeat of the mandates originating from the District Office. So, we were at a stalemate, attempting to document the origin of these ostensibly “voluntary” decisions/mandates.
The next day, Tuesday July 2, 2002, Kubera called me at 11:11 a.m., on a conference call in which other unidentified DO officials participated as silent witnesses. To make a 10-minute, 1-sided conversation short, I finally interrupted the monologue and suggested to Kubera that I simply take HIS letter dated the same day (July 2) and write on the bottom “Dear Roger – This is what I want to do.”
Kubera was agreeable, and said with that statement we would be able to grind again with no restrictions. I wrote the laughable note on his letter, and faxed the letter to him at 11:31 a.m. that day. We were immediately up and running again.
I must add that only minutes earlier, Kubera had visited with Dr. Helmut Blume, the recently retired manager of the agency’s District Office in Salem, OR, who was also acting as my consultant. Neither Dr. Blume nor Kubera has divulged to me the content of their conversation that transpired minutes before the conversation between Kubera, his associates and me.
My assumption is that Dr. Blume must have cautioned Kubera, warning that I was ready to go public, that the ConAgra recall validated my claims of the previous four months, and that the Minneapolis DO was perilously close to being revealed as intentionally ignoring evidence which revealed the ongoing production of contaminated meat, to the detriment of public health. We may never know.
Anyway, this innocuous, window-dressing conclusion to the four months from hell reveals the nature of the agency’s current meat non-inspection program. My fax to Roger Kubera was a lie. But, a mere lie was the precise missing link allowing me to grind again.
On July 19, 2002, ConAgra’s recall was expanded to include a total of 19.1 million pounds.
In the weeks that followed the nationwide recall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 45 people in 23 states with illnesses linked to contaminated ground beef, including one death in Ohio. The source of the outbreak was traced to ConAgra’s plant.
However, another incident also helped prompt the recall, an incident that USDA has conveniently kept under wraps. Just prior to ConAgra’s recall, agency testing of ground beef at Galligan Wholesale Meat Company in Denver, another ConAgra customer, also revealed numerous E. coli O157:H7 positives.
Unlike my plant, Galligan Wholesale Meat does not slaughter, depriving FSIS the opportunity to accuse Galligan of introducing the pathogen. Unless of course, Galligan’s employees also have the same degree of inadequate personal hygiene as the agency falsely alleged against my employees.
When an initial E. coli O157:H7 positive was detected in a sample collected by FSIS at Galligan, the agency subsequently collected more samples as mandated by the agency’s 15-sample protocol. Galligan continued to grind ConAgra meat for the agency’s follow-up sampling purposes, which in fact became a point of contention. FSIS claimed that Galligan should present meat originating from other suppliers as well, not limiting sampling strictly to meat emanating from ConAgra.
However, Galligan management eruditely perceived that ConAgra was the source of the E. coli O157:H7, and to prove their point and protect consumers, they continued to present ConAgra product for sampling. Their perception was correct, which benefitted the consuming public, because the one true source of adulterated meat was indeed discovered. Two additional lab positives were detected from samples collected at Galligan; both had come from ConAgra product.
s imperative to note that FS
IS investigators picked up unopened, intact chubs of ConAgra coarse ground beef at Galligan for sampling and testing at USDA labs. FSIS was unwilling to do this at my plant four months earlier, even though I offered the intact chubs to the agency at no charge.
Why did FSIS test intact chubs from Galligan, but not from my plant?
For one thing, FSIS had been receiving criticism and input from Montana’s congressional delegation and numerous individuals on my behalf. Perhaps the agency finally realized that if it ignored the same evidence at Galligan that it did at my plant, subsequent revelations would provide bad press for the agency.
And the separate CDC investigation of the outbreak was about to reveal the ugly truth, with or without FSIS cooperation. Against its own desires and policies, FSIS reluctantly tested intact chubs from Galligan, not to protect public health, but to protect the agency’s public image. The tests were positive for E. coli O157:H7.
FSIS did not shut down Galligan’s grinder for four months, like the agency did at my plant. Why? Because the CDC simultaneously and unilaterally (with no assistance from FSIS) traced unrelated adulterated meat back to ConAgra, which incidentally was also the source of the three E. coli O157:H7 positives at Galligan.
At the time of my recall, there was no public health outbreak, that is, no sicknesses caused by consumers ingesting my ground beef. Therefore, agency actions at my plant were shielded from public scrutiny and FSIS chose to stick its head in the sand, circumventing a traceback to the true source of my contaminated meat.
The USDA Recall Press Release 055-2002, dated July 19, 2002 describing ConAgra’s recall included the following statement:
“The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has documented multiple (emphasis added) cases of illness connected to ConAgra beef that was the subject of the June 30 recall.”
Therefore, while Galligan was experiencing multiple lab positives in grinding ConAgra meat products, a public health outbreak was simultaneously occurring.
Furthermore, CDC officials had successfully traced the adulterated meat back to ConAgra, an accomplishment that FSIS had ardently avoided. These incidents at my plant and at Galligan proved that FSIS hid its head in the sand as long as possible, until critical mass evidence was gifted to the agency from other government entities, forcing tardy FSIS enforcement.
Subsequent news coverage suggested that had FSIS responded appropriately to the evidence compiled at my plant the previous February, USDA should have initiated enforcement actions at ConAgra in February, 2002, and required changes that could have prevented the subsequent dozens of sicknesses, one death, and the 19.1 million pound ground beef recall.
However, such agency action would be against the very heart of FSIS-style HACCP, which is deregulation. During my four months of hell, numerous FSIS personnel reminded me “Let HACCP Work.” Yes, indeed, HACCP did work at my plant and at Galligan, as both plants successfully detected the presence of E. coli O157:H7 in meat we had purchased from ConAgra. However, HACCP did NOT work at ConAgra.
Congress requested that the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigate the ConAgra recall. OIG investigators visited my plant for three days in August 2002 to review all my records. OIG also investigated ConAgra, Galligan Wholesale Meat, and FSIS offices in Minneapolis and Denver. One year later, OIG released its investigative report. Several verbatim statements from the OIG report reveal the extent of agency complicity at ConAgra prior to the recall:
“Data was available to both ConAgra and USDA in the period prior to the recall that indicated that E. coli contamination was becoming a continuous problem (emphasis added) at ConAgra.”
“Although animal feces on product was repeatedly (emphasis added) observed during production at ConAgra, USDA took no enforcement action.”
“USDA did not take enforcement action against ConAgra even though it continued to cite the plant for HACCP violations involving visible (emphasis added) fecal contamination of products.”
Personal note: Visible contamination is no longer of concern to FSIS, because visible contamination is accomplished via “organoleptic” (sensory) inspection, which has been outlawed by FSIS-style HACCP. The agency now prefers to audit paper flow, absent visual inspection.
“USDA Inspectors followed policies that effectively limited the documents the inspectors could review and the enforcement actions they were allowed to take.” Personal note: What else should we expect when the agency voluntarily embraced a “hands off” non-involvement role, while surrendering its previous policing ability and command and control back to the industry? Consumers are reaping what FSIS has sown.
“USDA should make recall activities more effective by ensuring that ground beef is traceable (emphasis added) from manufacturing to point-of-sale.”
Personal note: FSIS opposes tracebacks to the big packers, for reasons delineated later in this report, all of which are linked to the agency’s desire for comfort.
“USDA had reduced its oversight short of what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer.” Personal note: Sorry folks, but FSIS-style HACCP was NOT designed to protect consumers, but for the benefit of FSIS and the industry’s biggest players.
OIG had previously warned FSIS of the agency’s shortcomings in its implementation of HACCP. On June 22, 2000 (two years before ConAgra’s recall), USDA’s OIG issued a report on FSIS-style HACCP, which included the following statement in its Executive Summary:
“Because FSIS was uncertain of its HACCP authorities and had not established needed procedures, it had reduced its oversight beyond what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer (emphasis added).
Personal note: The fact that OIG’s wording in its 2000 report is identical to the wording in its 2003 report is not coincidental. It constitutes an embarrassing revelation that FSIS ignored OIG’s warning three years earlier. Is OIG ignorant of the fact that FSIS refuses to utilize a “hands on” role, refuses to police the industry, and has jettisoned its previous command and control authority? Consumer protection had gone the same route as organoleptic inspection … into the dinosaur archives.
Now that we’ve seen how USDA’s own OIG documented problems within FSIS-style HACCP and recurring problems at ConAgra, let’s study ConAgra’s public statements about its compliance with HACCP requirements prior to the company’s 19.1 million pound recall. ConAgra produced a document entitled “The Strongest Chain of Safety,” which includes the following statements:
“ConAgra Beef Company’s multiple hurdle food safety intervention program has been verified through a series of scientific studies conducted by independent research scientists (emphasis added), which began in 1997. Each successive study demonstrated improved results of the log reduction in E. coli bacteria.”
“Colorado State University has validated that the ConAgra Beef Company multiple hurdle food safety intervention program reduces pathogenic bacteria by 99.9999 percent.”
“Most importantly, the study [December 1998 NCBA-supported study conducted by Colorado State University] resulted in a 6 log or 99.9999 percent reduction in pathogenic bacteria from the live animal to the chilled carcass, virtually sterilizing the carcass.” (SOURCE
: Bacon et al. (1999) Colorado State University and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association)
“ConAgra Beef Company’s unparalleled carcass pasteurization program features a series of scientifically proven interventions that result in a 6 log or 99.9999 percent reduction in pathogenic bacteria from live animal to chilled carcass, virtually sterilizing the carcass.” (emphasis added)
Virtually sterilizes carcasses? This claim does not reconcile itself with the OIG statements that “E. coli contamination was becoming a continuous problem at ConAgra” or that “Animal feces on product was repeatedly observed during production at ConAgra.” Educated folks would ask why FSIS took no actions in spite of the presence of repeated observations of fecal-contaminated carcasses. Who is in charge? Who do you think?
So much for independent, third-party audits/verifications of the efficacy of a plant’s pathogen intervention system. I would be remiss if I did not explain the tenuous justifications for independent, third-party verifications and audits. Why has our globe been deceived into thinking that public health now pivots on third-party auditors? Frankly, the world has bought into a dumbed-down, deregulated food production system absent meaningful government oversight. Since government regulators now loathe “hands on” oversight of food facilities, the void is now filled with independent, allegedly unbiased third-party auditors. We ignore the fact that any auditor who issues adverse reports will soon have no work in the industry.
These issues were addressed in a Washington Post article by Lena H. Sun on Oct. 22, 2010, entitled “Conflicts of interest mar food producers’ independent inspection.” Some highly revealing quotes from the article include:
“In fact, most food makers, even those with problems, sail through their inspections, said Mansour Samadpour, who owns a food-testing firm that does not perform audits. ‘I have not seen a single company that has had an outbreak or recall that didn’t have a series of audits with really high scores’, he said.”
“That was the case with Wright County Egg and the Peanut Corp. of America, both linked to recent salmonella-related recalls. Months before the outbreaks, the same inspection firm gave both companies ‘superior’ food-safety ratings, the highest possible for that type of audit.”
“Industry experts say that under the best circumstances the audits can be useful. But a key failure is that auditors are typically paid by the companies they are inspecting, creating a conflict of interest for inspectors who might fear they will lose business if they don’t give high ratings.”
“At a congressional hearing last month into the outbreak of salmonella illness that has sickened at 1,800 people, staff investigators revealed that Wright County Egg, one of two Iowa farms at the center of the August egg recall, had received a ‘superior’ rating from AIB International two months earlier. AIB also gave a ‘superior’ rating two years ago to Peanut Corp. of America, which federal investigators have accused of knowingly selling peanut products contaminated with salmonella bacteria that sickened hundreds and killed at least nine.”
“Wright County Egg also has said it is addressing conditions identified by FDA inspectors, who found piles of manure, live mice and dead maggots in company barns. AIB did not inspect the barns.” Personal note: Sounds like FSIS, which focuses primarily on paper flow, not on physical facilities or production lines.
I am tempted to start a new company to provide third-party audits. The name of my independent auditing firm would be “Integrity for Sale, Ltd.” An appropriate motto would be “We’ve got whatever you need.” For the right price, I’ll fill your files with an avalanche of scientific reports that portray your HACCP system to be incapable of contaminating food. If the price is right, I’ll validate whatever you desire. Furthermore, I’ll promise to merely review your paperwork, and refuse to inspect your physical facilities. If you subsequently decide to digress from your plan, disguise your non-compliances via falsification of records, the “hands off” agency will never know.
The primary need for third-party audits is that FSIS-style HACCP has removed FSIS from its traditional role of inspecting meat. Since FSIS won’t inspect meat, someone has to do it. We can’t expect the industry to fully fill the bill, for obvious reasons. In the absence of any meaningful government oversight, we now rely on third-party auditors to perform the duties previously handled by FSIS. If the agency were to reassume its previous role of inspecting production lines, we would have no need for outside third-party entities.
Likewise, although independent third-party experts concluded that ConAgra’s highly heralded “Multiple Hurdle Pathogen Intervention System” resulted in a 7-log bacterial reduction, the real truth was that “continuous” and “repeated” adulteration of carcasses with visible fecal material was a recurring occurrence at ConAgra. It is important to note that the USDA OIG report of the ConAgra recall also stated:
“USDA inspectors followed policies that effectively limited the documents the inspectors could review and the enforcement actions they were allowed to take.”
Therefore, not only did ConAgra operate with continuous production of fecal-contaminated carcasses, but also FSIS itself didn’t know if it had any authority to intervene, gratis FSIS-style HACCP.
Therefore, FSIS didn’t attempt to force ConAgra to implement corrective actions to prevent continuous and repeated fecal contamination of carcasses.
I was among the majority of Americans who elected Ronald Reagan, whose espousal of deregulation’s benefits created a paradigm shift in how we viewed the need for government regulation, or the lack thereof. Pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 revealed gaping holes in Reagan’s overly rosy deregulatory assumptions. Nevertheless, FSIS remains blindly committed to Reagan’s faulty deregulatory claims.
I am as conservative as they get, so my statements appear to be heinous and heretical. However, I am now one of thousands of industry insiders (including FSIS field personnel) who have witnessed first-hand how FSIS has intentionally bastardized meat inspection, thereby imperiling consumers.
FSIS-style HACCP has indeed deregulated the largest plants. The Big Four meat packers currently kill 88 percent of our feedlot-fattened steers and heifers. The risk emanating from these Big Four is substantial, and obvious. Nevertheless, the largest plants are the primary beneficiaries of the agency’s “hands off” non-involvement role.
Small plants lack clout, are much easier prey, and are the agency’s primary target for enforcement actions. As long as American consumers unconsciously endorse the agency’s overt deregulation of the largest plants, while hyper-regulating the small plants (which produce very little), ongoing outbreaks are virtually guaranteed.
Dan Murphy wrote an article for meatingplace entitled “ConAgra Beef to adopt new anti-bacterial rinsing process,” published May 10, 2002, two months before ConAgra’s 19.1 million pound recall. The article described ConAgra’s innovative “Thermal Organic Rinse Process,” referred to as “TOR.” The article stated that TOR provides “bacteria reduction of 99.99999 percent,” which equates to a 7 log reduction from the live animal to the chilled carcass. Now, what does a 6 log or 7 log reduction mean?
Each log represents a 90 percent decrease in pathogenic bacteria loads. I’ll explain it thi
s way. Let’s say there are 10 million E. coli bacteria within a specified area on a manure-covered beef hide. How much does this bacteria count diminish with each successive log improvement?
– 10,000,000 initial bacteria load on live animals
– 1,000,000 represents a 1 log reduction
– 100,000 represents a 2 log reduction
– 10,000 represents a 3 log reduction
– 1,000 represents a 4 log reduction
– 100 represents a 5 log reduction
– 10 represents a 6 log reduction
– 1 represents a 7 log reduction
Therefore, ConAgra’s multiple hurdle pathogen intervention system was allegedly independently validated to reduce bacterial load from 10,000,000 on live animals to 1 or less on the chilled carcass.
Indeed, this would justify the claim that ConAgra’s system “virtually sterilizes carcasses.” However, OIG’s investigation of ConAgra revealed “continuous problems,” and that “animal feces on product was repeatedly observed during production at ConAgra.”
FSIS is now primarily focused on auditing company-generated paperwork, and not inspecting meat production lines. As I stated earlier, FSIS stands for Food Safety Inspection Service. It should be changed to FSAS, as in Food Safety Auditing Service.
To claim that FSIS “inspects meat” constitutes a violation of Truth in Advertising laws.
Referring to ConAgra’s claim to a 7-log reduction in pathogens, USDA’s OIG essentially said the claim was but cowa-BUNG-a balderdash. In other words, leave your manure in the corrals. However, manure did come inside, and cross-contaminated carcasses. Nevertheless, ConAgra claimed that E. coli O157:H7 on meat was NOT a food safety issue!
I will discuss that in my next segment.
John Munsell now oversees the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement, FARE. His website is www.johnmunsell.com