Montana plant tried to alert USDA to E. coli problems

MILES CITY, Mont. (AP) -- 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 Wednesday. "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 this 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.

That paid off in February, when three tests came back as contaminated by E. coli. The meat had not been distributed, so there was no recall.

Montana Quality Foods' records showed that all the meat originated at the same place -- ConAgra's plant 969 -- in the same batch, on the same date.

FSIS field inspectors relayed Munsell's information to the head of the FSIS Minneapolis regional office in a letter March 1 written and signed by Dr. Daryl Burden, a veterinarian and circuit supervisor, and countersigned by Inspector-in-Charge Ronald Irvine.

The reaction from FSIS, Munsell said, was silence, even after major newspapers around the country began reporting his experience.


In Washington on Monday, Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project released Munsell's e-mails alerting USDA and pleading for the agency to ask him for his documentation.

Burden, the FSIS official who wrote the March 1 letter, notified Munsell of the policy change this week.

Munsell called that change "a 180-degree turnaround in FSIS policy," but added, "It is just a start."

"It's a scandal of immense proportions that I hope the news media and Congress bring to a head," he said. "USDA itself has promulgated regulations and directives in recent years designed with the primary purpose to release them from responsibility for day-to-day, hands-on meat inspection."

The new policy says information is to be collected about the source of meat going into a grinder, and if there is a positive E. coli test inspectors are to immediately inform the district office, which would then notify the supplying establishments and other district offices if they are involved.

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