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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

USDA’s “Hands-Off” Inspection Policy Threatens U.S. Beef

Sarah Damian | November 10, 2010

An insightful piece by former GAP client John Munsell was posted on Food Safety News, spotlighting significant shortcomings in the USDA’s deregulated meat inspection program, and its unfortunate capacity to suppress whistleblower concerns and compromise the integrity of our food supply.

A noted whistleblower himself, Munsell ran a USDA-inspected meat plant for 34 years, and knows first-hand the agency’s schizophrenic habit of scrutinizing smaller plants at the end of the production chain – while maintaining a “hands off” policy with the food giants at the beginning of the line. This not only reinforces the notion that government ties with big industry allow our nation’s largest food suppliers to regulate themselves, but it also prevents the needed step of stopping contaminated foods where they start.

Munsell highlights the 2001 Supreme Beef vs. USDA case, where a meat packing business failed USDA’s Salmonella tests, after which the USDA pulled their inspectors out of the plant – meaning that Supreme Beef had no way of selling their product. The company claimed the meat was contaminated before it got to their plant. While fighting the USDA in court to force the agency to return its inspectors, Supreme Beef ended up going bankrupt.

Munsell says what’s truly of note is SB’s assertion that the incoming meat with the “official USDA Mark of Inspection” had already been contaminated with Salmonella, serving as evidence of an industry norm where source slaughter providers escape USDA’s wrath. He writes:

This means that the agency intentionally allows the source slaughter plants to ship into commerce meat that is laced with Salmonella. When the Salmonella is detected at downstream further processing plants, the agency responds by unleashing its full enforcement fury at the victimized downstream plant, while insulating the source slaughter plant from accountability.

Allowing Salmonella and E.Coli-tainted meats to ship into commerce shows how “the Mark of Inspection has lost all pertinence.”

Munsell also mentions ConAgra’s 2002 recall of E.Coli-tainted beef, which had already caused Munsell’s small processing plant (Montana Quality Foods) to ultimately go out of business. When he first brought the issue to the USDA in 2001, the agency blamed Munsell for receiving the contaminated meat instead of enforcing the law against ConAgra. After facing undeserved punishment by the government (learn more about his battle on our history page), Munsell turned to GAP, who then released a report titled “Shielding the Giant: USDA’s ‘Don’t Look, Don’t Know’ Policy for Beef Inspection” based on a six-month investigation.

A USDA Office of Inspector General audit report confirmed Munsell’s charges, in addition to showing how USDA’s attitude against even trying to fight large source plants makes it impossible for inspectors to do their job. OIG’s report states:

“Although inspectors at ConAgra raised concern to their supervisors regarding the increasing level of fecal contamination and positive testing results, we (OIG) could find no evidence that USDA managers responded to the concerns raised.”

Nothing really has changed, says Munsell, since the Supreme Beef “fiasco” a decade ago, with USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service continuing “to place an inappropriate focus on finished product testing.” And it’s not just the meat industry. Even the FDA, who claims new food safety legislation would give it the authority to keep the big egg companies in line, had no problem shutting down tiny cheese producers.

Munsell appears hopeful under the new FSIS leadership, but he points out that the overall USDA mind-set toward inspection would have to be uprooted for proposed goals like “tracebacks to the source” to be met. A new hands-on mentality would need to involve support for the inspectors themselves, and other employees who reveal problems. The Senate food safety bill, if passed, includes a provision for whistleblower rights to enforce these essential protections that lead to enhanced food integrity.

 

Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign.

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