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National group joins suit

Contention will be decided in court

Associated Press

MILES CITY, Mont. -- A Miles City meat processor praised a national group's plan to join his lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saying it will add legitimacy to his complaint that the USDA unfairly protects large meatpackers.

"It denies the agency the chance to describe this as the lawsuit of one disgruntled man," said John Munsell, who contends federal officials retaliated after he criticized efforts to protect the nation's beef supply from E. coli contamination.

The American Association of Meat Processors, which Munsell said represents about 1,700 smaller meatpackers nationwide, decided it wanted to join the lawsuit and help contribute to court costs.

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"AAMP did not enter this case hastily, recognizing that many of its member plants also sell beef products to other plants for further processing," the group wrote in its March 15 newsletter. "But it has many members who have been unfairly punished by FSIS (the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service) for actions beyond their control."

In January 2002, Munsell was notified that a ground beef sample from his company, Montana Quality Foods and Processing Inc., had tested positive for E. coli contamination.

In the lawsuit filed last fall, Munsell claimed he told officials the contaminated beef had come to his business from a larger plant in Colorado. He contends his warnings were ignored and federal officials declined to trace the source. Later that year, ConAgra recalled about 19 million pounds of beef because of E. coli contamination at the Greeley, Colo. plant.

Munsell maintains that when he complained, he was required numerous times to rewrite a plan detailing potential hazards and controls "on threat of withdrawal of USDA inspectors" and approval of the company's beef products.

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