If you follow food safety policy, there’s a good chance that when you think of traceback, you think of John Munsell. Once dubbed the “meatpacking maverick,” Munsell has been extremely critical of the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t routinely track the source of E. coli O157:H7 beef contamination unless people are sick.

john-munsell2-183.jpgIn 2002, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service — the billion dollar agency responsible for the safety of America’s meat and poultry — found E. coli O157:H7 in Munsell’s small Montana meat grinding operation. He recalled 207 pounds of ground beef and both Munsell and his USDA inspector notified the agency that the contaminated beef had been sourced from ConAgra’s massive slaughter plant in Greeley, CO.

Instead of looking up the supply chain to pinpoint where the contamination might have occurred, USDA officials shut down Munsell’s business for four months.  A few months later, 45 illnesses in 23 states were linked to E. coli contamination at the Greeley plant. By the time ConAgra recalled 19.1 million pounds of beef, more than 80 percent of it had already been consumed by consumers.

Munsell was incensed. He thought the USDA’s actions were not only unfair, they were not in the interest of public health.

“I came to realize real quickly how disingenuous they were,” Munsell told Food Safety News in an interview. “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.”

A few years after the ConAgra recall, Munsell became fed up with regulatory red tape, sold his business, and founded the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE) to “protect the rights of legitimate small plant owners in their dealings with USDA” and to advocate better policy. He has been omnipresent in the conversation about meat safety — commenting on blogs and FSIS policies, writing op-eds, and questioning food safety officials whenever possible.

Last week, more than ten years after Munsell’s run in with the agency, FSIS announced that in July it will begin tracing meat contaminated with E. coli back to the source whether or not there are illnesses tied to the product and the agency will start the traceback investigation before test results are even confirmed.

The agency said it would “move quickly to identify the supplier of the product” and then, if a sample is confirmed positive, notify other processors who may have received contaminated meat from the same supplier, which will help keep contaminated meat from consumer’s shopping carts.

On the whole, Munsell is pleased with the move, but cautions that time will tell whether the agency is actually able to roll out the new policy and make it the norm.

“FSIS is to be commended for publicly acknowledging the need for tracebacks to the SOURCE of contamination, the obvious advantages of implementing corrective actions at the SOURCE, and the need for agency enforcement actions when a SOURCE slaughter plant experiences High Event Periods (HEP),” wrote Munsell in his comments to FSIS, obtained by Food Safety News. “Public Health considerations mandate implementation of these traceback activities; thus, enactment of agency traceback policy improvements should not require public or industry “approval” or endorsement.”

Bob Hibbert, an expert on USDA policy at K&L Gates, also believes tracing product back as soon as there’s a presumptive positive “is a step in the right direction,” but noted there could be some issues.  

“Undoubtedly some legitimate concerns will surface regarding the disruptions that could be caused by false alarms,” said Hibbert. “But I think such concerns are outweighed as a general matter by potential public health benefits, and I would hope that they can be mitigated in specific cases through sensible implementation and enforcement.  Once a true food safety threat is identified, it is in everyone’s best interest to eliminate it from commerce as quickly as humanly possible.”

Munsell also points to a long list, roughly 20 pages, of issues that he thinks FSIS should consider, including the possibility that the meat industry might take legal action against FSIS.

In his comments, Munsell said he believes the agency is “treading on thin legal ice caused by its deregulation of the big packers by allowing the industry to police itself.”

“Traceback to the source, and enforcement actions at the source, fall into the category of the need for policies to be made expeditiously, if we have a greater concern for public health than for successful litigation.”