Jolley: Five Minutes With John Munsell & A Trip To The Woodshed With The USDA

One day, a long, long time ago, Big John noticed something amiss. Contaminated meat was coming in the back door of his very small plant. "That's not right," he thought and called the authorities.

They arrived ready to right a wrong; after all, that was what they are paid to do, an earnest and dedicated group of men and women charged with safeguarding much of America's food supply.

An inspector, armed with many official looking pieces of paper, looked Big John in the eye and said, "Assume the position!"

John was frisked. The authorities stopped just short of a full body cavity search. It was a very thorough exam.

"Wait," protested Big John. "The meat came in with bad stuff already on it. I didn't put it there. Go after the people who sent it to me!"

"Obviously you don't understand the way we do things around here," chuckled the inspector who was amused by Big John's apparent naivety. "We found the bad stuff in your possession; therefore you have to be the bad guy."

John was frisked again. This time, the authorities included a full body cavity search. It was VERY thorough exam.

"Wait," protested Big John again. "All this bad stuff came from (deleted), a very large company that might be shipping lots more of that bad stuff to thousands of people. I can prove the bad stuff came from them. PLEASE go after them!"

"No, No, we can't go after (deleted)," said the now impatient inspectors. "Don't even say that name. We found the bad stuff here so you must suffer the consequences! We have to protect the public!"

So, to protect the public, John was shown the back door. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of pounds of meat was destroyed.

A few months later, (deleted), now known as Conagra, recalled 19 million pounds of beef that was potentially contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7.

Such is the sad tale of a small Montana beef processor and its owner who thought he could tilt at very large windmills.

John Munsell didn't quit, though. He dusted himself off and started a new whistle blowing career. His target? Anything that seemed out of place at FSIS. As far as he's concerned, the most out of place thing is HACCP; a good idea, perhaps, but completely misapplied he thinks.

He's a proponent of tracing pathogens to their source. He's an opponent of asking the grinder – essentially the last man standing in the ground beef supply chain - to shoulder most of the financial responsibility for detecting E. coli O157:H7 and removing contaminated product from commerce. He says its presence is evidence of a process failure at the harvesting facility and the responsibility should stay there.

Munsell also commented on my column with a long and involved response. I thought it deserved something more than the scant notice it would get appended on the end of a lengthy article days after publication. I contacted him and asked a few questions.

Q. In a recent column I wrote for Food Safety News, I commented on FSIS's traceback policies saying they waited 48 hours for a presumptive positive to be confirmed before pursuing the issue. Richard Raymond, our last food safety czar, corrected me, saying, "FSIS does not ‘wait" for 48 hours for a presumptive positive to become a confirmed positive before starting a trace back investigation. They simply do NOT trace back for a positive sample. They only trace back when there are illnesses. That is a delay of weeks, not days." What do you say about the agency's traceback policies?

A. By the agency's own admission, it performs tracebacks to the origin of contamination subsequent to a public health outbreak, but it does not conduct tracebacks as the result of a positive determination of a sample of ground beef. Currently, when a ground beef sample tests confirmed positive, only then does the inspector request source information from the grinding plant.

Armed with such information, FSIS does NOT perform a traceback. During the agency's March 10 Traceback hearing, the agency announced it will send an EIAO to the grinding plant a day or two earlier under the new arrangement. This means that when the sample is declared to be a "Presumptive Positive", the agency will commence its evidence gathering protocol.

However, the agency ardently avoids promising a traceback to the origin, only promising it will commence its evidence gathering one or two days earlier than currently performed. FSIS should mandate that its inspectors document all source evidence at the time the sample is collected, which is part &; parcel of the scientific method. Although this could be easily performed, the agency prohibits such timely evidence gathering.

Q. Eight years ago, you thought you were doing the right thing by blowing the whistle on contaminated beef sent to you from a Conagra plant. Instead of pursuing the obvious, FSIS levied the full weight of their regulatory control on your small Montana plant and essentially put you out of business. A few months later, Conagra recalled 19 million pounds of beef. Of course, most of that meat had been consumed while valuable time was lost. Changes have been made in how FSIS officials handle in plant inspections. From your point-of-view as the (ex)operator of a small meat plant, have they been adequate?

A. It is true that the agency has assumed authority to conduct its own microbial tests in plants of all sizes, a dramatic change. I'll give you an example. In 2008, the agency collected 16 ground beef samples at the very small plant I sold a few years ago. In 2008, the agency also collected 16 samples at the Cargill plant in Friona, Texas. The Friona plant kills more in one day than my old plant does in two years, but the agency treats both plants identically. This biased sampling protocol is intentionally designed to insulate the largest slaughter plants from meaningful oversight, and from pathogen accountability.

Another change has been the agency's creation of their STEPS program, meaning System Tracking E. coli Positive Suppliers. When a grinding plant experiences an E. coli positive result, the agency now maintains a data base on which ALL source suppliers to grinding plants which experience adverse lab test results are added to the STEPS data base. But, the agency has done nothing with multiple entries of individual source plants on the STEPS data base. Two years ago, before Nebraska Beef experienced its large recall; the STEPS data base had over 120 entries, 20 of which were Nebraska Beef. Nevertheless, FSIS did nothing at Nebraska Beef, until unrelated events led to the company's large recall. Bottom line: FSIS has indeed implemented changes, which have been mere window dressing.

Q. It's difficult to determine how many federal and state agencies are involved in food inspection. It would seem that food production would be one of the most heavily regulated businesses in America, therefore producing some of the safest products in America. At least that's the word I hear at the beginning of almost all the speeches on food safety delivered from podiums at too many industry events. What's your position?

A. I've seen zero statistics validating the claim that America has the safest food on the globe. Granted, the food industry has substantial government oversight. However, FSIS has utilized the current HACCP non-inspection system to essentially deregulate the largest industry establishments, where the risk of pathogen contamination is the greatest because of fast chain speeds.

There's a galaxy of difference between "Meaningful" meat inspection, and "Cursory" meat inspection, which is in existence at the largest plants. FSIS is a voluntary participant in "Agency Capture", which describes the scenario in which the regulatory agency has been captured by the very industry it supposedly regulates. In 1906, the Federal Meat Inspection act was passed, providing government oversight over the meat industry. In 1998, the largest meat plants implemented HACCP, allowing those plants to police themselves. In less than 100 years, FSIS willingly acquiesced its authority back to the industry's biggest players, by intentional agency design. As such, ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls are virtually guaranteed.

Q. Commenting on that FSN editorial, you quoted a July 26, 2002 FSIS internal email that said ‘At the time the [ground beef] sample is taken, the IIC [Inspector] will obtain from the establishment, the name, point of contact, and phone number for the establishments supplying the source materials for the lot of ground beef being sampled". This email constitutes proof that the agency can require real-time evidence gathering, and can mandate this change via a simple email, not requiring additional rules or time-consuming public hearings. This change made sense then, as well as in 2010." Unfortunately, this procedure was rescinded two months later." Why was the directive made and then canceled?

Immediately prior to the July 26 FSIS email, I publicly announced that NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw was to include a news clip of agency behavior at my plant earlier that year, which included the agency's unwillingness to trace back to the origin of contaminated meat detected at my plant in February of that year. It did air on August 1, 2002.

Is it a sheer coincidence that the agency immediately responded by instructing all its District Offices to mandate their inspectors document all source evidence at the time of sample collection? The precise timing was no coincidence, but my perception is that the agency was preparing for its interview with NBC, and could then truthfully state that its inspectors were required to document all evidence in real time.

In mid-September, my FSIS contacts notified me that the agency had rescinded this procedural change, but that no one had yet seen any official agency notification of this change, and confusion reigned within the agency. On Saturday, October 5, 2002, FSIS hosted a joint agency/industry educational session in Great Falls, MT, which I attended. The manager of the agency's District Office in Minneapolis was in attendance, so I intentionally asked him in the public setting what the official agency policy was at that time. He publicly stated, and I quote "For legal reasons, the agency has decided to not document all source evidence at the time the lab's confirmatory results have been determined". End quote. Rest assured that the litigation threat did NOT emanate from small further processing plants. Connect the dots yourself.

Think about it: if the agency were to successfully trace back to the source slaughterhouse of origin of enteric bacteria like E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella, numerous embarrassing facts would be revealed:

1. The behemoth slaughter plants continue to ship unsafe meat into commerce.

2. FSIS is asleep at the wheel at the large slaughter plants, by intentional agency design, providing a "comfortable" agency non-presence.

3. HACCP has been an unmitigated disaster, with a foundation in political science and science fiction, not pure science.

The only way FSIS will conduct timely tracebacks to the source slaughterhouses will be via legislative mandates, not by willing agency decisions.

Q. FSIS officials know that meat supplied to grinders by larger processing facilities can arrive with pathogenic contamination and they're asking the receiving plant to determine the extent of the problem. It strikes me as a cart before the horse situation and a strong redundancy must be built into the inspection system with all parts of the production system sharing the responsibility. Do you agree and would you outline a more efficient way to handle inspection?

A. I strongly believe that the victimized downstream further processing plants should not be saddled with the financial costs of validating the efficacy of source slaughter plants" HACCP Plans. FSIS now expects downstream destination establishments to (a) detect incoming pathogens, and (b) remove these invisible pathogens.

Ironically, neither the source originating slaughter plants nor FSIS could accomplish either (a) or (b) at the initiating slaughter plant. This should come as no surprise, because it merely continues the agency's historical actions to insulate the transnational slaughter plants from pathogen accountability, and to send all liability downstream, along with the previously-contaminated meat, to the destination processors.

This is the logical conclusion emanating from "Agency Capture", and reveals a lack of courage and intellectual honesty on the part of high FSIS officials who refuse to hold the source accountable for their recurring failures. Instead, FSIS should immediately commence a substantial increase of agency-conducted microbial testing at all slaughter plants, primarily at the "Big 4" which slaughter 88% of our feedlot steers and heifers. Furthermore, all agency test results must be posted on the agency's website, in real time.

Within one month, the entire world would quickly discern the TRUE ORIGIN of enteric pathogen-laced meat. Now, this is no guarantee that FSIS would do ANYTHING to implement meaningful enforcement actions at the SOURCE. Instead, the agency might spend $50 million to educate consumers that all meat is potentially hazardous to their health. Frankly, we need all top FSIS officials to have no ties with the meat industry, and forbid their eventual employment by the industry which they've been holding unaccountable for hot meat.

Q. You've been a critic of the HACCP program for a long time, even in the face of evidence that says it is working. Would you talk about your objections to HACCP?

A. HACCP was authored by Pillsbury, starting in 1959, to produce consistently safe food for NASA astronauts and the Army. Pillsbury-style HACCP mandated kill steps, such as fully cooking or irradiation, to kill all bacteria. Once a consistently safe system is developed, no ongoing microbial testing is necessary, because all products are consistently wholesome.

When the Jack In The Box outbreak occurred in 1993, FSIS knew that it had to develop a new kind of meat inspection/production system capable of detecting invisible bacteria (like E. coli 0157:H7) which could not be detected under its then-existing "organoleptic" system of sight, smell, taste, etc. FSIS envisioned the Pillsbury HACCP system as its savior.

Unfortunately, the majority of USDA-inspected plants produce raw meat &; poultry, lacking kill steps, making such plants ineligible for a true HACCP program.
Some meat plants which produce ready-to-eat meat such as jerky can flourish uder the HACCP umbrella, but raw meat need not apply. So, FSIS intentionally changed HACCP: Pillsbury rolled out a Cadillac, and called it HACCP. FSIS produced a jalopy, and called it HACCP, an inadequate interloper.

Pillsbury always intended HACCP to be a voluntary program, which could only be used by plants willing to make products which had been exposed to an effective kill step. FSIS responded by making HACCP mandatory at all federally-inspected plants, which runs totally contrary to what Pillsbury envisioned.

FSIS realized that it had to obtain "voluntary" compliance by the industry in order for HACCP to be successfully implemented industry-wide. The carrots the agency dangled in front of our eyes included the following agency promises:

1. Under HACCP, the agency could no longer police the industry, but the industry could police itself. I thought "Alleluia!"

2. Under HACCP, the agency would disband its previous command and control authority. I thought "This is getting better all the time".

3. Under HACCP, the agency must embrace a "Hands Off" non-involvement role. I thought "This is too good to be true". Unfortunately, I was right.

4. Under HACCP, each plant could write its own HACCP Plan, and the agency could not tell plants what must be in their HACCP Plans. I was ready to kiss the FSIS spokesperson!

Subsequent history has proven that the agency has been fully compliant with all four pre-HACCP promises………….at the big plants. History has also revealed that the agency has been totally noncompliant with all four promises at the small plants, which the agency hagrides with great relish. As such, FSIS is egregiously guilty of
"Bait &; Switch", an illegal activity for meat plants, but legal for FSIS.

In the four years following the implementation of HACCP by small plants, 22% of small processing plants left federal inspection, and 19% of small slaughter plants.

The numbers continue to dwindle: not because they are incapable of producing wholesome meat, but because the plant owners are frustrated with ever-changing demands and confusing procedures mandated by the agency, and they walk away from inspection. One such demand is the agency's recent announcement that small destination plants must greatly increase their microbial testing, not only of finished product, but of incoming product purchased from their source slaughter providers.

This will further eviscerate rural America of federally inspected plants. This validation mandate also, which is not surprising, continues to insulate the source of contamination from accountability.

I was unaware of the horrendous differences between the truly science-based Pillsbury HACCP program and USDA's HACCP Hoax until 2009, when a friend provided me copies of articles authored by Dr. William Sperber, who was a Pillsbury microbiologist from 1972 – 1995. Dr. Sperber has become an outspoken critic of FSIS-style HACCP, which he claims is not even HACCP, and clearly delineates the plethora of reasons why the FSIS system does not work, as validated by our ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls. Anyone interested in food safety must closely study Dr. Sperber's articles. As the Bible says "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free". America, in fact the world, needs to be set free from USDA's HACCP Hoax. Granted, some portions of HACCP can act as excellent management tools, but not under the agency's enforcement actions.

One would think that HACCP has greatly matured after the largest plants have operated under it for twelve years now. To show how immature FSIS-style HACCP is, consider the fact that the agency hosted a public hearing on March 10 and asked the public to provide ideas on how the agency could improve its Traceback policies. Huh? After 12 years, only now the agency is admitting that its traceback policies are ineffective? In truth, they are non-existent, but at least the agency now perceives that it can no longer hide its head in the sand, or somewhere else.

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

As long as these ongoing outbreaks and recurring recalls occur, consumer confidence in our product wanes. If we desire to increase consumer confidence in meat, and increase per capita consumption, we need to provide safer meat to consumers. The existence of E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella in meat emanates from sloppy kill floor dressing procedures. Period.

Pressure must be placed on FSIS to aggressively embrace a "hands on" status in the industry, greatly increase microbial testing at the large kill establishments, and then must "Force the Source" to clean up its act. Frankly, existing FSIS management will NEVER succumb to such common sense reasoning, as it prepares for the prospect of lucrative future employment within the industry after retiring from the agency.

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