Jolley: Five minutes with John Munsell, E. coli & Salmonella

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John Munsell was born into the meat business. His father ran a small meat packing plant in Montana.  He graduated from college in 1968 and worked outside the business before returning in 1971 to take over Montana Quality Foods & Processing.

He ran it without incident until January 2002, when he conducted a recall of 270 pounds of ground beef, potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.  A recall of just a few pounds isn’t a major problem, even for a small business, but this one quickly escalated into one of the most infamously misguided cases of HACCP-driven government over-reach into the food business.  Three additional adverse lab reports, all of which were from ground beef from meat John had purchased from an outside supplier, put Montana Quality Foods on the ropes. Despite evidence that the source of the contaminant was from an outside supplier, the USDA took harsh enforcement actions against John's plant.

USDA’s removal of inspection prevented John's plant from producing several thousand tons of ground beef for the next four months. An angry Munsell, who had been telling the USDA they were hanging an innocent man, went public to explain the agency's misdirected activities.  NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw carried his story on August 1, 2002.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP), a public interest law firm in Washington, DC, brought suit against the USDA on Munsell's behalf.  It went nowhere but the result, as reported on Munsell’s web site (http://johnmunsell.com), was dozens of people contacted him “to provide additional evidence of USDA abdicating its congressional mandate to protect and promote public health imperatives.”

Munsell sold his plant in 2005 and created the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE). He set two goals for the Foundation: “(1) protect the rights of legitimate small plant owners in their dealings with USDA, and (2) funnel suggestions for common sense changes in meat inspection policies to USDA.”

John has become a regular contributor to various media and blogs, focusing on systemic problems within USDA's current style of meat non-inspection, called HACCP.  His advocacy is small meat plants, promoting a viable rural America, and protecting public health and food safety.

A few days ago, he copied me on an email note he sent to a friend who was concerned about the USDA’s apparent double standard when it came to E. coli and Salmonella.  I suddenly realized that Salmonella was getting what amounts to a federally approved free pass when it comes to food safety issues.  I contacted Munsell and asked him to clarify his note.

Q. There seems to be some confusion at the USDA about the danger posed by E. coli and Salmonella. In a note you sent to a friend, you wrote “CDC statistics show that 10 times as many Americans die from Salmonellosis every year than from E. coli O157:H7” First question: The USDA treats the two pathogens much differently.  Why?

A. Here’s the confusion: USDA declares E. coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant but Salmonella gets a free pass. It’s illegal to ship into commerce meat containing E. coli O157:H7 except when it’s on the surface of intact cuts of meat where it’s a "contaminant." The USDA has a "Zero Tolerance" standard on E. coli O157:H7 except on intact cuts but no zero tolerance standard for Salmonella. First question: Why are there two standards for E. coli?

USDA is not the least confused or in the dark about dangers associated with E. coli and Salmonella. The agency declared E. coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant for PR purposes, portraying the image that FSIS is the ultimate 24/7 protector of Public Health, and Americans believe it.

FSIS' designation of E. coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant in trimmings and ground beef, but only a contaminant when found on the exterior of intact cuts is not based in science, but in political science. Insulating intact cuts from this designation provides a free pass to slaughter plants, adroitly passing all pathogen liability downstream to the destination entity. Eighty-eight percent of our feedlot steers and heifers are slaughtered by the Big Four packers, who constitute a formidable legal adversary if FSIS were ever audacious enough to classify E. coli O157:H7 on intact cuts as adulterants. This dual designation exposes the agency's disingenuousness and hypocrisy, with obvious harm to the twin towers of safe food and public health.

Q. Next question: Like E. coli on the surface of intact cuts, Salmonella is classified as a "contaminant." It’s a far more prevalent pathogen, why aren’t there stricter standards?

A. Salmonella is much more ubiquitous, especially in poultry. The mere declaration of Salmonella as an adulterant won't magically make Salmonella extinct, which is what FSIS mistakenly hoped for when classifying E. coli as an adulterant.

I suggest that FSIS should initially collect a large number of Salmonella tests of carcasses, trimmings, and intact cuts (boxed beef) at all slaughter plants, especially the Big Four which produce the lion's share of domestic beef.

Why doesn't the agency already do this? Number one, FSIS is paralyzed with fear of litigation stemming from the Big Four and their associations. Number two, the agency intentionally used HACCP as a means to deregulate the large plants, while hyper-regulating small plants, with promises that the agency would embrace a "Hands Off" role under HACCP, would no longer police the industry (we police ourselves), and acquiesce its previous command-and-control authority.

Frankly, because of these pre-HACCP promises, the agency has painted itself into a corner. FSIS foolishly emasculated itself, and finds itself in a feckless position to confront these embarrassing ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls. The agency perceives the likelihood of legal actions if it were to attempt to resume its previous "Hands On" protocol, to police the industry, or to attempt to use command-and-control authority again.

We must discuss the term "adulterated." Part of the agency's definition of adulterant is "injurious to health." Since CDC statistics reveal that Salmonella annually kills ten times as many Americans as does E. coli, FSIS actions portray its cavalier attitude towards Salmonella's lethality. The agency's definition should include all bacteria which is injurious to our health. I suggest that our discussions about adulterant vs contaminant are counterproductive, coyly designed to distract us from the real issue, which is detecting the source of contamination. Instead, FSIS should leave no stone unturned to perform tracebacks to the source, then force the source to clean up its act.

Last, true HACCP doesn't have Performance Standards, but does include Microbial Monitoring Guidelines. Candidly, raw meat & poultry plants don't have true HACCP Plans, because they lack a kill step. Therefore, there will always be a risk associated with raw meat & poultry. Plants producing raw meat & poultry lack a true CCP, but have Control Points (CP's). One such CP would be microbial tests which would best target APC or TPC. Plants which consistently maintain low APC or TPC will apriori likewise control pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli.

Q. E. coli in ground beef is a zero tolerance pathogen. What are the allowable levels of Salmonella?

A. USDA's Salmonella tests allow the following incidence of Salmonella, meaning plants pass the test with the following maximum Salmonella incidence:

Ground Beef: 7.5% positives allowed

Whole Chickens (Broilers): 20%

Ground Chicken: 44.6%

Ground Turkey: 49.9%

The Hannaford recall last fall for Salmonella-tainted meat revealed a conundrum. Why should a recall have been announced for meat laced with a mere "contaminant?" Because the particular strain has developed a resistance to 3 of the 5 most popular antibiotics traditionally used to treat Salmonellosis.

FSIS recently announced that it is considering naming four serotypes of Salmonella as adulterants. Even though FSIS is considering utilizing stricter standards for these Salmonella serotypes, we must all eventually admit that raw meat & poultry is risky, and will occasionally harbor bacteria. Therefore, the ultimate issue is how should meat establishments utilize Microbial Monitoring Guidelines, coupled with Statistical Processing Control, to (1) identify event days, and (2) ensure a plant's success in consistently lowering its bacteria counts. Success in these areas would promote public health immeasurably more than withdrawing inspectors from downstream further processing plants. FSIS disagrees.

Q. I wasn’t aware of the procedure behind "Sets" of Salmonella tests. It seems bizarre and counterproductive to achieving any kind of food safety goal. Describe the process.

A. When FSIS collected "Sets" of Salmonella tests at my plant, as well as at other plants, the agency inspector collected one ground beef sample weekly for 53 consecutive weeks, and FedEx’ed the sample to a USDA Lab for microbial analysis. At the conclusion of the 53 samples, if the incidence of positives exceeded the maximum as listed above (7.5%), FSIS would commence another 53-sample "Set." If a plant flunks two consecutive sets, the agency then conducts a third set of 53 samples. FSIS is authorized to initiate enforcement actions against a plant only if it flunks three consecutive sets of Salmonella tests.

If this had happened at my plant, almost three years would have transpired before the agency could have implemented enforcement actions. This system is at direct odds with true HACCP, which requires immediate corrective action when pathogens are discovered. The delayed reaction to the three sets has an obvious adverse impact on public health.

Q. I want to get to the core of your issue with the USDA. Your note asked, “. . . can you believe that the agency which considers itself the "Premier Food Safety Agency in America" would not even allow its inspectors to document source evidence when collecting ground beef samples? Are you starting to grasp the corruption within USDA?”

Their rules and regs are often confusing, but is ‘corruption’ the right term?

A. Excellent question and I appreciate your asking. Some definitions of corrupt are "dishonest, containing errors or alterations, to destroy or subvert the honesty or integrity of, to change the original form of (a text, for example)". First of all, FSIS-style HACCP is a corrupted version of Pillsbury's original, and true, HACCP.

At the IFT annual meeting in the summer of 1995, while the MegaRule was still a work in progress, the FSIS Administrator made an interesting revelation to a microbiologist who was a member of the agency's NACMCF. The Administrator stated, "We are changing HACCP, and there's nothing you can do about it." And change it, they did. Time does not allow me to list a side-by-side comparison of these diametrically opposite HACCP systems. Suffice it to say that FSIS built a go-cart, and calls it a Mercedes. A corrupted Mercedes.

When the agency utilized recurring misbehavior against me in 2002, I thought FSIS had individually targeted me for unethical actions. I have subsequently been informed by agency inspectors, veterinarians, and plant owners that such misbehavior is widespread, worse in some areas than others. I am currently providing assistance to several small plant owners who are being hag-rided by agency personnel, based on ridiculous allegations which have no basis in science or regulations. And, such agency personnel are unaccountable for their behavior, fully isolated from responsibility.

When plant owners stand up for their rights, FSIS personnel threaten removal of inspectors, and bludgeon small plant owners into submission. The agency's "Appeal Process" does NOT constitute legitimate legal recourse. Take it from me......and many others. This is one reason why the Government Accountability Project filed suit against the agency on my behalf, to provide us a public opportunity to reveal agency-endorsed misbehavior, which I call corruption.

A common statement made to me by honest FSIS employees - the vast majority of FIELD personnel are honest - is that incompetence in several (not all) FSIS District Offices constitutes corruption.

The current FSIS management team of Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen, Administrator Al Almanza, and Deputy Administrators Daniel Engeljohn and Philip Derfler have inherited a mess, and are doing their best to change the agency's rudder into saner waters. All four of these folks enjoy my respect and full endorsement. Their ability to redirect the agency lifer bureaucrats remains to be seen, as well as bringing their ten remaining District Offices into accountability.

Q. Thousands of cattlemen read Cattlenetwork. What would you like to say to them?

A. USDA is tasked with (1) Marketing domestically-produced Ag products, and (2) overseeing USDA-Inspected meat, poultry & egg plants. Obvious conflict of interest. The agency is doing an admirable job with #1, and failing #2.

Livestock producers depend on slaughter and processing plants to whom their livestock can be marketed. Producers also depend on consumers who hopefully perceive that meat is safe for their families to eat. I submit to you that consumer confidence in, and purchase of meat suffers when we are continually beset by ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls.

In my opinion, USDA's negligence directly contributes to outbreaks and recalls, which also diminishes demand for beef. We've seen in recent weeks how consumer reaction to ammoniated meat has decreased demand for beef, and the livestock prices you're receiving falls along with consumer confidence. Consistently safe meat is not only good for consumers, but benefits the bottom line of livestock producers as well.

Ten years ago, the word "traceback" was almost nonexistent in Americans' vocabulary, but has become popular, for good reason. I respectfully suggest you live and breathe tracebacks to the slaughter plant source, as the successful resolution to tracebacks will be safer meat, which will increase prices you receive.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.


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c andrews    
chicago-kansas  |  April, 29, 2012 at 05:51 AM

thanks very informative-these type operations are the back bone of the beef business-going forward it is about sanitation and portion control. Beef producers need to concentrate on feeding small per capita pounds but an expotential number of persons. When the beef industry sells beef as an amino acid it will have arrived.

Sam    
cow country  |  April, 29, 2012 at 06:47 PM

What? Just what are you trying to say? Portion controle has absolutly nothing to do with this story. If we ever get to selling seperate Amino acids we will be dead!

tom stuckey    
omaha  |  April, 30, 2012 at 08:19 PM

the suppose E-Coli outbreak at the swift plant was a hoax the head of sales and the person in charge of their hedging is to blame for that false information they trade the futures to make a bonus profit and they should be invested the market took a dive early morning and closed higher Swift should be invested and I highly recommend no want sell them any cattle for the next 3 months you do not kill hogs in a cattle plant


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