Troy and Sterling Heights are a pair of hardscrabble Michigan towns both about 20 miles north of Detroit now dealing with a Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak. Each has a retail meat market that since Thursday first recalled 500 and then the second 550 pounds of ground beef. Each meat market in turn sold ground beef to an un-named restaurant, also north of Detroit in Macomb County. At this point most of the illnesses involve folks who dined on an Arab dish at that restaurant where the ground beef is served raw. Little businesses, small recalls, and local folks poisoned by not taking enough precautions with their ethnic or religious traditions. We should not expect to see much interest in this one, should we? Or just maybe we should. For one thing, within hours of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announcement of the second small meat market recall, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the expansion of the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak to 16 illnesses in five states. It does not seem likely that all the Salmonella Typhimurium illnesses in those four other states could have resulted from dining at the same north Detroit restaurant. More likely there is a common source out there, one that supplied both of those retail meat markets and others. That was back in the day when FSIS had little interest in knowing if a common source existed or doing anything about it. And, you could double that if the common source was a big beef plant. Think of it as FSIS circa 2002. Call it the bad old days. If you don’t believe it, do a search on Food Safety News for “John Munsell.” John’s family owned a small meat plant in Miles City, MT that in 2002 had to recall 207 pounds of ground beef for E. coli O1157:H7 that was supplied by the massive slaughter plant at Greeley, CO. It’s a long story, but trust me that everybody including everybody involved at FSIS well knew the little plant in Miles City got its contaminated beef from the big plant in Greeley. But, rather than go after the source back then, FSIS just shut down John’s business for four months. FSIS in 2002 had no interest in knocking on doors at the always politically powerful Greeley plant, and it’s “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” approach would shortly directly contributed to a large E. coli outbreak a few months later for which the then ConAgra plant was rightly blamed. ConAgra’s post outbreak recall was just a little larger than John’s, coming in at 19.1 million pounds of beef with some 40 sickened and 1 dead. Even our publisher, Bill Marler, feels that listening to John would have saved lives. Back then, it was FSIS policy to make the John Munsell’s of the world feel like they were a character in their own Franz Kafka novel. Tracing E. coli to its source was not in FSIS’s job description, especially if it led to a big beef plant owned by the likes of ConAgra. JBS, USA owns the Greeley plant today. Dick and Charlie Monfort, owners of the Colorado Rockies, previously owned the Greeley plant before selling it to ConAgra in 1987. (Both Dick and Charlie continued in major management positions for ConAgra well into the 1990s.) Almost 500 miles north of Greeley on the Yellowstone River, John decided he fight the bastards, be they in big government or big business. He sold his small meat plant and founded the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE). And last year, he scored a victory when FSIS came out with a new policy to track E. coli contamination to the source whether or not illnesses are involved and the trace back investigation would begin immediately. The new policy should make it a whole new ballgame for a newly empowered version of FSIS. Neither of the little meat markets in Michigan are likely the “common source” of an outbreak involving at least five states. So, we are about to find out if the new policy is real or, as they use to say, memorex. Once the new FSIS identifies the common source for this Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak, John is sure to have some additional questions. Like will FSIS audit that facility, conduct an HACCP reassessment, require corrective actions, and require stepped up Salmonella testing? “And perhaps most importantly,” he asks, “will the establishment be required to recall source material from the same production dates on which it produced contaminated meat sold to these two Michigan retail store?” Long story short, John sees two Michigan meat markets as “small time, flies in the ointment” that are in the next few days and or maybe weeks going to make for a nationally important test because they will tell us all if FSIS really intends to “challenge the source.” And I am sure for John if the actual source turns out to be a large plant owned by a JBS, Cargill, or Tyson’s, it might bring a little smile to an old cowboy’s face. Possibility helpful footnote: John wrote a multi-part series in 2011 for Food Safety News, recalling the events that turned him into the activist who some today call the “Meatpacking Maverick.” The first installment can be found here.