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Watching the inspectors

Is USDA protecting consumers or corporations?

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When Canada found a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) on May 20, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) banned Canadian beef imports into the U.S. The ban was, at least in part, to assure trading partners such as Japan that U.S. meat is as safe as it ever was. But if the U.S. is looking to assure beef-eaters and buyers both in this country and abroad that American beef is safe, closing Canadian borders may be just a Band-aid solution to a larger problem.

John Munsell, owner of the family-run Montana Quality Foods, Inc., believes that the problem of meat safety goes beyond Canadian beef. Munsell’s operation was shipped beef contaminated with E. coli from the multinational ConAgra corporation as early as January of 2002. When Munsell notified the USDA of the contaminated meat, the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) responded by making him re-write his Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan 14 times and suspending his right to grind his own beef products for four months. While Munsell felt the USDA’s wrath, the agency took no action against ConAgra until a second round of contaminated meat was found at Galligans, a Colorado plant, in June of 2002; that shipment resulted in a recall of 19 million pounds of ConAgra beef. ConAgra later sold off a large portion of its beef and pork production division.

“On three consecutive days, the samples taken by the USDA inspector at our plant were positive [for E. coli]. The inspector saw that we started with a clean grinder…he observed us bring out boxes of ConAgra coarse ground beef, we opened them up, put the meat into our grinder and he sampled it…so the inspector, Ron Irvine, and his boss…hand wrote a letter in which they said that the USDA should commence an investigation into ConAgra. People in Washington, D.C. rejected their letter,” Munsell says. “They said that those two people were not authorized to make that statement. So, in other words, they were not authorized to tell the truth. They called that letter ‘personal opinion.’ And the Minneapolis [USDA] district office kept telling me, ‘John, it’d be best if you never referred to that letter again.’”

Munsell points to his conversation with Billings USDA circuit supervisor Dr. Grady Skaggs, in which Munsell recalls Skaggs saying that an inspector wanted to accept Munsell’s ConAgra samples, but “the Minneapolis district office told him not to because they were afraid that ConAgra would sue the USDA.

“He said that in front of four of us, and he does not deny making that statement, either.”

Skaggs could not verify or deny the statement Munsell attributed to him, as he was not given clearance to speak with the Independent by the USDA’s public affairs office.

Reminded by a reporter that he has a First Amendment right to speak if he so chooses, Skaggs said, “That may be the case, but they’ve also got the right to tell me not to, which they do. They tell us that we have to have clearance before we speak to a reporter.”

Such lack of access to government employees is not shocking to Felicia Nestor, food safety director with the Government Accountability Project (GAP).

“USDA definitely does not want reporters talking to front-line people,” she said. “USDA continues to send memos out to the field telling them, ‘You do have a First Amendment right to speak as a citizen,’ but then they go on to give instructions that if any reporter calls, they should call up the public affairs office. So they mislead them into thinking that they’re not allowed to talk to you.”

Munsell says that even after three consecutive positive E.coli tests on ConAgra-shipped beef, the USDA didn’t call him back. At that point, he sent an e-mail to the district office manager in Minneapolis. “I wrote, ‘Dr. Clark, if you and I, realizing all the details now, cover this up and do nothing about it and somebody gets sick as a result, then you and I need to share a cell in Alcatraz.’ That made him so angry.”

That FSIS was unwilling to accept Munsell’s ConAgra beef samples at the owner’s request prior to the recall raises questions about whom exactly the USDA is working to protect—beef consumers, or beef corporations such as ConAgra.

A leaked USDA memo to its Kansas meat inspectors may help answer that question. The memo informs inspectors that “stopping production for ‘possible’ cross contamination is unjustifiable unless you can verify that there is direct product contamination. Verification is OBSERVATION of gross contaminate not SUSPECTED contaminate. This is the only criteria for justifying halting production.” The memo continues, “You may be accountable for the time the company has lost production if that lost production is not verifiable and the action not justifiable.”

Nestor says that Munsell’s case and the Kansas memo show that the USDA directs inspectors to place business interests ahead of food-safety concerns.

“In these large packing plants, inspectors have about 20 seconds to look at the carcass to make sure that it doesn’t have fecal matter on it. Twenty seconds is no time at all, and they have to make a judgement call in a split second,” says Nestor. “What USDA was telling them was, ‘If, in those judgement calls, you err on the side of food safety, we will not defend you if the company sues you,’ and companies often threaten to sue inspectors.”

It is difficult to know exactly how such a memo affects inspection policies, however, since the USDA does not readily provide inspection data.

Sweetgrass, Mont., is the major port for Canadian beef imports into the U.S., with two inspection stations. Attempts by the Independent to obtain inspection data from the Deringer meat inspection plant in Sweetgrass prior to the Canadian beef-ban were unsuccessful.

“We cannot give out that information,” said Randi Samsel in the Deringer office in Sweetgrass. “It’s just a corporate policy…we don’t deal with reporting at all.”

Up until the 1980s, most inspection stations were run by the government, thus allowing public access to inspection records. These days, all inspection stations in the U.S. are private, according to Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Cohen will not say whether these private companies are affiliated with cattle raisers or independent of them.

“They’re just privately owned, however they’re owned,” he says. Cohen also would not release overall inspection data from the port of Sweetgrass.

“If you wanted to find out how many infractions a particular plant had, that’s available through the Freedom of Information Act. I mean, it’s available under the law, but it’s not information we readily provide.”

The Independent has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to review the Sweetgrass data, but the request had not been processed at press time.

Aside from inspection data, both Samsel and Cohen refused to provide the Independent with the name or telephone number of a government meat inspector stationed in Sweetgrass.

Linda Mydland, the branch manager for Deringer’s Sweetgrass plant, spoke with the USDA inspector in her port, and relayed to the Independent the inspector’s request that she not divulge his identity.

“I don’t want to get him mad at us, because we have to work with him very closely,” Mydland said.

Mary Bottari wrote an extensive report on meat imports for the non-profit research group Public Citizen. Bottari says that in the past, Sweetgrass inspectors Bill Lehman and Mike Tisdale have testified to massive border inspection problems.

Lehman, a whistleblower who worked as a border meat inspector in Sweetgrass from 1987 to 1996 before his death in 1998, once told reporters that after the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 1989, “Canadian meat imports became almost exempt from inspections.”

“Your border guys there have already been screeching about how little Canadian beef is really getting inspected,” Bottari says. “That was before the new border inspection system kicked in, so God knows what people are doing in Sweetgrass now. Are they just sort of waving at the trucks as they go by?”

The new inspection system Bottari refers to charges inspectors to look at less meat, but more thoroughly, according to USDA spokesman Cohen.

“We’re focused a little more on trying to sample the higher risk products, meaning ready-to-eat products, and we’re not sampling as many lots of beef trimmed from Canada,” Cohen says.

With U.S. meat inspection stations under private control, watchdogs like Nester and Bottari are concerned about accountability. Also troublesome to watchdogs is the possibility of Washington prematurely reopening the border to Canadian meat in an effort to keep business from lagging.

The Deringer station’s Mydland says, “I can tell you that our impact has been drastic here for our meat inspection. We have literally lost several bodies. We’ve had to lay off employees. It’s a terrible impact. If it were up to the people, the border would be open.”

The border would certainly be open were it up to Brooks, Alberta, Mayor Don Weisbeck, who oversees the city with the largest meat plant in Canada. Weisbeck says that some 2,800 animals associated with the mad cow have been killed in Alberta. Most of the Canadian plant’s meat travels through Sweetgrass, he says.

Mayor Weisbeck was one of the organizers of a Canadian beef rally at the U.S.-Canadian border in late July, and he says that he has conversed with Canadian Agricultural Minister Lyle Van~Clief. After a conversation with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, Van~Clief told Weisbeck that he was confident the border would be reopened by Sept. 1, 2003.

Interestingly, Weisbeck says it’s possible that that infected mad cow came from the U.S., not Canada.

“The border’s been so fluid and almost non-existent in terms of cattle transportation, so who knows?”

That almost non-existent border could be justified by the USDA’s declaration that the Canadian safeguards are “equivalent” to those in the U.S. (as is required in order for the U.S. to accept meat from other countries). However, the U.S. system requires that plants be inspected on a monthly basis, and according to Brooks, inspectors visit the plant in Brooks, Alberta, only “three or four times a year.”

As Canada attempts to allay fears about the safety of its meat products, watchdog groups like Bottari’s and Nestor’s will continue to be ill-at-ease—until, that is, U.S. meat inspectors are encouraged to talk openly and to stop production lines when they suspect contamination, not just when they can verify it in 20 seconds. Or until early troubleshooters such as Montana Quality Foods’ John Munsell are lauded rather than punished.

“We’re not saying that millions of Americans are going to die tomorrow because of imported meat,” Bottari says. “We’re saying there’s a real sloppy procedure here and it’s going to be a significant cause for concern if we don’t address it.”

For Muncell, his USDA experience has left a sour taste in his mouth. The meat producer says that he no longer eats any ground beef other than that which comes from his own plant.

“I know the percentage probability that it’s going to be adulterated,” he says.

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