Did USDA ignore E. coli warning?

Allegation made by Montana processor

Associated Press

MILES CITY, Mont. -- The national recall of 19 million pounds of contaminated meat, the second-largest in history, might have been averted if somebody had listened to John Munsell months ago.

Munsell had been trying to tell the department since February that ConAgra Beef Co.'s meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., had E. coli problems.

He knew because his Montana Quality Foods &; Processing Co. here had received contaminated beef from the Greeley plant.


But the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service did not order the huge recall until July 19. By that time, 17 people in Colorado had been sickened by the beef, and other cases have surfaced since. Other cases that may be related also have occurred in California, Iowa, Michigan, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"They will do everything they can to prevent a confrontation with a big packer," Munsell said last week. "In other words, there is no one in USDA, with the exception of the field personnel, no one in the bureaucracy that has the intestinal fortitude to confront the big packers."

A policy change the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week indicates somebody finally may have heard Munsell. That, he said, is only because he "went public" despite fears of retaliation.

"They may try something in the future," Munsell said.

Montana Quality Foods had to recall 270 pounds of ground beef late in January because of E. coli contamination, but Munsell's records didn't show which of several major packing houses it came from.

Because of that, he said he made two changes in his operation: He began keeping specific records showing the origin of the meats he grinds, and he began holding his processed meats in storage until government laboratory test results are back.

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