USDA vs John Munsell

Imagine a businessman, consumer advocate and whistleblower all in one person. He is John Munsell, owner of the family business Montana Quality Foods, Inc.

Mr. Munsell charged that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tried to drive him out of business because he exposed the department’s failure to act on evidence that the giant ConAgra beefpacking company was shipping E. coli contaminated ground beef carrying the USDA’s own seal of approval as wholesome.

The USDA’s aggressive “do not look, do not tell” non-interference policy with ConAgra backfired when it was finally required to recall over 19 million pounds of ground beef and related trim during the summer of 2002. The reason: Laboratory tests confirmed E.coli 0157:H7 — the same deadly germ that had taken lives and hospitalized many in previous contamination tragedies.

When John Munsell found that the hamburger he ground from ConAgra-provided meat contained the pathogen E.coli, he informed the USDA. Whereupon the Department launched an inspection of his operation, but not the source of the contamination — ConAgra, and closed Munsell’s plant for four months.

USDA’s delay in going after ConAgra’s Greeley plant resulted in the death of an Ohio woman and sickness for 35 other consumers before ConAgra recalled 19 million pounds of beef.

Back in 1967 when we were exposing dirty meat plants throughout the nation that led to the media and Congressional furor that in turn led to the 1967 wholesome meat inspection act, I heard similar complaints about USDA. Meat Inspectors who did their job often lost their job or were transferred. Dirty or cancerous meat was funnelled into the poor inner cities where consumers had the least power. The 1967 Act then gave USDA more authority to regulate this industry and for a time conditions were improved.

But never count out the lobbyings power of the meatpacking industry and their allies in the councils of government. They do not want regulation; they want self-regulation under the guise of regulation so as to reassure people that the USDA seal means something.

So in the Nineties they started beating the drums to get rid of continuous daily USDA inspection of meat plants’ assembly lines. During the Clinton Administration in 1996, USDA started a new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system which was described as a modernization movement. HACCP was touted as placing the responsibility on the companies for their products, supplemented by laboratory tests to detect invisible microbial contamination. It hasn’t quite turned out this way.

According to the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which is championing Munsell’s cause, USDA’s has “left the public ignorant of and vulnerable to ongoing shipments of government — approved, tainted meat. USDA is “not enforcing the HACCP rules for industry’s duty to maintain accurate, complete public health records to protect America’s consumers,” charges GAP. This deficiency reduces the ability to trace back products when recalls are necessary, GAP asserts.

GAP is a highly credible organization (see www.whistleblower.org) that defends whistleblowers in court. When it declares that USDA “engaged in persistent, ugly retaliation against anyone who attempted to expose the ongoing coverup, whether the whistleblower is government or corporate, employee or small business, ” consumers better take notice. Congressional hearings and continued oversight is crucial. Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) conducted an investigation of the ConAgra recall. But the majority House and Senate Republicans seem to care far more about big business than consumers’ right to clean and safe meat.

Munsell, a Republican, is on the move — demanding action from Congress, writing detailed letters to the USDA and agitating in every direction he can think of for safer meat products and effective regulation. Thousands of USDA meat inspectors are cheering him on. They are fed up with the large companies contacting the higher-ups in the USDA and in Congress to pressure inspectors to lay off or be transferred out. Tough enforcement and USDA have not mixed.

On December 16, 2003 one of our affiliated groups gave John Munsell of Miles City, Montana, the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage. He should have gotten an award from the National Federation of Independent Business if the NFIB knew anything about the courage of small business to take on big business and risk all in the name of conscience. 

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