I am writing this in response to the article appearing in Food Safety News on Dec. 27 regarding Elsa Murano’s being considered for Secretary of Agriculture. The article refers to Murano’s previous service as the USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) from 2001-2004.

USDA-Feb2015Prior to Murano’s arrival at FSIS, every USDA-inspected plant was required to develop and implement HACCP plans (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans). When FSIS introduced HACCP to the industry, the agency publicly proclaimed that HACCP plants would be authorized to police themselves, and that the agency would no longer have authority to police those plants. FSIS officials also publicly stated that FSIS would no longer utilize its previous “hands-on” authority, but would be limited to a “hands-off” role. The agency also publicly stated that under HACCP, the FSIS would no longer have command and control authority over plants.

Finally, the agency also publicly declared that it would not have the authority to tell plants what must be in their HACCP plans. What does this have to do with Murano?

In a “Frontline” segment on TV entitled “Modern Meat” on April 18, 2002, Murano stated, and I quote: “The HACCP system does not give the plants any authority. Responsibility. The authority is ours (FSIS). We are the ones with authority. We shut down plants all the time.”

FSIS, and Murano, thus legalized bait and switch, a practice the industry is not allowed to use. Would we allow Murano to do the same as Secretary of Ag?

These facts reveal that FSIS has intentionally implemented HACCP in a fashion totally noncompliant with the agency’s pre-HACCP promises, deceit which Murano embraced. This turn of events also reveals systemic problems within FSIS-style HACCP, which is a topic all its own.

Food Safety News readers may be familiar with FSIS behavior at my plant in 2002 after a ground beef sample there tested positive for E.coli O157:H7. Although inspectors at my plant notified agency officials that the bad meat at my plant originated from Establishment #969 in Greeley, CO, the FSIS shut down my grinder for four months, while making no demands for corrective actions at Est. #969. Four months later, in June and July 2002, Est. #969 announced a 19.1 million-pound recall for meat potentially contaminated with E.coli O157:H7. I then went public, detailing all FSIS misbehavior with this incident.

The story was reported by “NBC Nightly News” with Tom Brokaw on Aug. 1, 2002. When Murano was interviewed by NBC, she stated that when agency officials went to Establishment #969, they could not find any of the implicated meat with a production date of Aug. 29, 2001.

Well, duh, all product from Aug. 29 had already been shipped into commerce, some to my plant.

When FSIS was fully cognizant that Coarse Ground Beef produced on Aug. 29 tested consistently positive for E.coli, the agency should have suggested a recall of that date’s production. Instead, since FSIS couldn’t find any product produced on Aug. 29 at Est. #969, a full six months after production, agency investigators went home happy, and Est. #969 went on with business.

The FSIS, under Murano’s leadership, stuck its head in the sand, hoping for better days. Another outbreak, four months later, and the 19.1 million-pound recall forced FSIS to unwillingly extricate its head.

Subsequent to the 19.1 million-pound recall, FSIS conducted a thorough investigation of Est. #969. Only then did the agency discover that in the 100 days preceding the recall, the plant’s own internal testing revealed 34 days of E. coli positives, in the absence of any effective corrective actions.

On July 25, 2002, Jake Thompson wrote an article quoting Murano in the World-Herald Bureau regarding unsafe meat produced at Est. #969.  The article stated “Because Est. #969 slaughters 5,000 head of cattle and produces about 800,000 pounds of beef daily at the Greeley plant, one or several positive E.coli tests on some days wasn’t cause for alarm.” Murano further went on to state “That is not that high a number.”

Thus, Murano publicly stated that several positive E.coli tests on some days at large plants was acceptable to the agency.

Try to use that excuse on families which have lost a member due to E.coli O157:H7. Perhaps only a handful of E.coli deaths annually is “not that high a number?”

Do we want myopia to run USDA?

Elsa Murano
Elsa Murano

When a small plant like mine experiences but one positive test sample — even when the meat originated from another source slaughter supplier according to agency inspectors — FSIS removes the small plant’s ability to grind for several months. But when several positive tests occur daily at a large plant, FSIS yawns. That qualifies as Ho Hum.

Do we want someone to head USDA who is biased against small plants, and food safety, while immunizing large plants from accountability? Although only 7 percent of all meat plants are large, they produce 90 percent of our meat, according to FSIS’ Daniel Engeljohn. I suggest we need a Secretary of USDA who will fairly treat the other 93 percent of plants, whose minuscule size is considered a sin by FSIS.minuscule

It is worth noting that since HACCP’s inception, FSIS has assiduously promoted its daunting Zero Tolerance policy for E.coli O157:H7. Except of course, when the pathogen is detected at large plants.

The September 2002 edition of Meat Marketing & Technology stated “In July, Elsa Murano told an industry gathering she does not believe current food safety technology can guarantee pathogen-free meat.” Murano was quoted as saying “Zero risk is just not possible in a raw meat product.”

One can conclude that Murano insulates the largest packers from pathogen accountability because of this impossibility, making a mockery of the agency’s Zero Tolerance policy, while requiring small, downstream processing plants to fully meet the agency’s zero tolerance mandates.

Again, do we want this subjective and prejudiced mind set heading the United States Department of Agriculture?

Then-Montana Sen. Conrad Burns confronted then-USDA Secretary Ann Veneman about FSIS misbehavior at my plant. Veneman replied “We (FSIS) mishandled that from day one.” The fact that the USDA secretary was cognizant of agency misconduct at my plant leads one to believe that the head of FSIS at the time, Murano, was likewise cognizant. Nevertheless, Murano failed to intervene. She did not to require the source of pathogen-laden meat to be accountable, nor did she require corrective actions to prevent recurrences at the source.

Did Murano pressure FSIS into dismantling its unachievable goal of zero tolerance for E.coli in raw meat? No, although she publicly admitted that it was impossible. Is this leadership? Murano is precisely correct that zero tolerance is unachievable in raw meat, but did she pressure FSIS to change its foolish stance? No.

Did Murano have the courage to then, or now, to admit that all raw meat and poultry lacks a kill step, thus lacks a legitimate CCP, and thus does not qualify for true HACCP? No.

But she knows better, since she is a full professor at Texas A & M’s Center for Food Safety. Admitting FSIS HACCP-based failures requires a forceful and fearless leader.

Did Murano pressure FSIS into requiring tracebacks to the source of contaminated meat? No.

Only on May 2, 2012, on FSIS Docket # 2012-0009, did FSIS publicly embrace the value of tracebacks to the source. This was eight years after  Murano exited FSIS.

Did Dr. Murano ever publicly discuss the value of epidemiological tracebacks to the origin of contaminated meat involved in public health outbreaks? Not to my knowledge, although the agency has epidemiologists on staff.

Why bother to have epidemiologists on staff, if official policies prevent the detection and identification of the source? That is a question for Dr. Murano to ponder.

Admitting FSIS HACCP-based failures requires a forceful and fearless leader.

The afore-mentioned Dec. 27 Food Safety News article was entitled “Food safety expertise could trump ho-hum ag appointment.” I respectfully submit that Murano’s stint at FSIS was “Ho Hum.” I also suggest that USDA needs an aggressive, proactive individual willing and capable of forcing changes upon an oftentimes recalcitrant bureaucracy. I am not surprised that Murano’s stint as President of Texas A & M was so short. We should not allow her an opportunity for similar failure at USDA.

Note on author: John Munsell is the manager for the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE) and in 2008-09 was biofuels/renewable energy coordinator at Miles Community College. For 34 years he ran a USDA-inspected meat plant, which had been in the family for 59 years. Raised in Miles City, MT, and educated at Montana State University in Bozeman, John sold the family business in 2005, subsequently opening a deli/bakery at a local retail grocery store. Munsell’s passionate focus has been to reveal institutionalized shortcomings in USDA’s deregulated meat inspection program, and to protect the rights of small plants to remain in business in the absence of ethical government enforcement actions.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)