Below is a list of the major food cases GAP has undertaken over the last 30 years in an effort to support whistleblowers that expose violations of food integrity. Since 1980, GAP has guided over 800 private sector workers and USDA inspectors and veterinarians in making their disclosures.
GAP’s food safety program began in 1980, when we provided legal support for John Coplin, a top USDA meat grader in Chicago, who exposed a major scandal in the federal meat-grading program. This scandal led to scores of firings and prosecutions.
Upon Coplin’s retirement in 1982, we organized a meat-grading tour in which he would visit various cities across the country, each time grading meat in grocery stores and holding press conferences to reveal his results. The findings indicated that many of the stores had incorrectly inspected and graded its product.
At the Simmons Industries plant in South West City, Missouri, USDA grader Hobart Bartley says he was told by USDA superiors to approve chickens infected with salmonella, riddled with cancer, oozing with pus, and smeared with feces. One day, Bartley happened to look into the eight-foot-high vat of water called the "chiller," where as many as 10,000 chicken carcasses were routinely left to float, soaking up moisture to increase their selling weight. Dried blood, feces, and hair were floating in along with the dead birds. Diane Sawyer later called it "fecal soup."
For a long time, Simmons officials ignored Bartley's repeated warnings of unsanitary conditions. His USDA bosses submitted to the plant's management, warning Bartley not to "bird-dog" the Simmons people. When Bartley refused to back off; the USDA transferred him in August 1985 to the night shift at another plant six miles away. He went from "grader in charge" to "other grader". Frustrated with the USDA, Bartley eventually took his complaints to GAP, who took the story to CBS "60 Minutes," allowing 30 million people to see what he saw. The resulting episode has repeatedly aired nationally and is now considered a “60 Minutes” classic. The piece was credited for dropping poultry prices by $1 per pound for a year after the first broadcast. In addition to publicizing Bartley's case, GAP forced the USDA to erase the negative comments from his employee file, and blocked the USDA's move to suspend him.
In the late 1980s, USDA inspector Steve Cockerham complained to his bosses about the filthy practices he witnessed at the Monfort slaughterhouse in Grand Island, Nebraska, to no avail. Monfort was one of five slaughterhouses in the U.S. experimenting with a “Streamlined Inspection System” (SIS) that greatly sped up the beef production process. Part of a USDA effort to deregulate the meat processing industry, the SIS program allowed corporate, rather than government, inspectors to review 20 percent of the nation’s beef.
Rather than considering the inspector’s complaints, agency bosses told Cockerham “to make the system work.” He was viewed as a troublemaker when he bravely chose to report on skipped sterilization steps, carcasses falling on the floor, and hydraulic fluid dripping all over the beef and workers. Before the SIS program was implemented, Cockerham would check about 265 sides of beef per hour. Once the program went into effect, he saw 340 go by.
In May 1989, a local reporter told Cockerham about GAP, which took his case and helped him tell his story to NBC’s Today Show. Negative public reaction in the following weeks led USDA to indefinitely postpone its plans for implementing the SIS in over 50 of the nation’s largest slaughterhouses. On September 10, 1992, the USDA announced that it was abandoning SIS. After a three-year battle, GAP won the war. The campaign to deregulate beef slaughter and processing ended as SIS plants converted back to independent government – not corporate – meat inspection.
At the very beginning of the 1990s, the Food Lion grocery chain was one of the fastest growing in the United States – along with being a notorious violator of consumer health and labor standards. In 1991, Food Lion employees began to report to GAP shocking abuses of food safety standards, including:
- grinding spoiled and expired meat into sausage
- removing expiration dates from out-of-date products
- improperly refrigerating dairy and egg products
- overlooking rodent and bug infestation
- washing off meat that was slimy, greenish and putrid
- soaking poultry in bleach to conceal spoilage
- putting tomato sauce on expired chicken and selling the new product at a higher price
GAP took its concerns to ABC, which aired a national exposé on the confirmed allegations. Afterward, Food Lion's corporate attorneys filed a subpoena against GAP, demanding confidential whistleblower information that GAP refused to reveal in order to protect the truth-telling employees’ identities. For over 10 years, GAP fought off the Food Lion subpoena, ultimately prevailing. Meanwhile the company’s profits plunged as a result of the exposé, and its stock plummeted to half its previous value, causing it to close 80 stores and to cancel plans to open 80 more.
In January 1993, a deadly outbreak of E. coli infection was traced to hamburger from Jack-in-the-Box restaurants in Washington state. Unfortunately, this tragedy confirmed all the warnings made by numerous GAP whistleblowers who worked in meat processing facilities but were ignored or harassed. After the beef contamination, GAP contacted the USDA, urging the agency to listen to those employees speaking out on behalf of public safety. In response, then-Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy visited GAP, meeting with our staff and several whistleblowers for hours. He pledged to investigate their public health concerns and protect each of them from retaliation.
As a follow-up to the GAP meeting, Secretary Espy announced a “zero tolerance” campaign against meat contamination. Immediately, food safety bureaucrats that he inherited undercut the new policy by secretly urging meat industry officials to report “overly” safety conscious meat inspectors. The meat industry memorandum describing this “hit list” reached GAP. Subsequently, Secretary Espy once again assured us that “zero tolerance means zero tolerance.” He reaffirmed the commitment of support for whistleblowers that he made during his meetings at GAP.
In 1995 Republican leaders withdrew a proposed rule that would have stalled microbial testing in meat inspection for at least two years – until after the fall 1996 election. When Congress proposed the stall, GAP organized a forum on Capitol Hill that brought 350 people together to counter the Republican Party’s deregulation effort. Panels included victims of E. coli as well as whistleblowers whose concerns had gone unheard. Ironically, only one staffer from the crucial House and Senate agriculture committees showed up to the event, while the rest were flown out to tour a meat plant on the same day.
After the Washington Post released a story on the briefing (and lack of congressional representation), the Clinton administration decided to fight against the proposed rule, keeping the microbial testing in effect. By focusing public scrutiny on this political maneuver to keep us from finding deadly, invisible E. coli bacteria, GAP scored a victory for consumer safety in what was the first major battle on the congressional agenda of deregulation.
John Munsell, owner of a small meat-processing business called Montana Quality Foods, was forced out of business by USDA officials who refused to support his efforts to expose the distribution of contaminated meat. In January 2001, Munsell's plant had received E. coli-tainted beef from meat-packing giant ConAgra. When he raised the issue with USDA and pushed the agency to enforce the law against ConAgra, the government blamed Munsell for receiving the contaminated meat. When he blew the whistle to Congress in February, USDA promptly shut down Munsell's grinding operations – before even asking ConAgra for its records.
While fiddling for six months to avoid disrupting the giant company's operations, meanwhile, USDA ordered Munsell to rewrite his own company's internal meat inspection plan no less than 14 times. By July, when the agency finally allowed him to resume normal operations, Munsell was forced to sell the family firm or face bankruptcy.
Munsell turned to GAP. After a six-month investigation, GAP produced an interim report entitled Shielding the Giant: USDA"s "Don't Look, Don't Know" Policy for Beef Inspection, drawing broad media coverage. USDA's Office of Inspector General issued an audit report confirming Munsell’s charges. A congressional oversight committee used GAP's report as a foundation for its own field investigation. Munsell, meanwhile, used the support to organize a network of small meat processors to blow the whistle through GAP on analogous instances of regulators colluding with big business to keep unsafe meat products on the market.