When people refer to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), one might imagine inspectors monitoring a meat or poultry assembly line for contamination. A more accurate picture, as illustrated in John Munsell's 9-part series, would be of inspectors auditing paperwork -- specifically that of small plants -- while leaving the big packers free of real oversight.
Munsell, a former GAP client and whistleblower, tells the story of his own experience with FSIS in 2001 when they forced his small Montana meat plant out of business and refused to acknowledge that E. coli-tainted beef (which the agency discovered at his facility) had originated from meat-packing giant ConAgra.
When he tried to provide source evidence of the pathogen-laced meat from his supplier (ConAgra), FSIS declined the offer. Munsell writes:
Dr. Skaggs stated that the [FSIS] compliance officer wanted to accept my offer of these [ground beef] chubs at no charge, but staff at the Minneapolis office feared that ConAgra would sue. Given an opportunity to conduct tests that may very well have revealed the true source of E. coli-contaminated meat, FSIS decided not to protect public health, but instead to protect the agency from possible litigation by one of the industry's behemoths.
Instead of holding ConAgra accountable (because perish the thought of making the big guys look bad), FSIS shut down Munsell's grinding operations and took him on a fruitless paper chase. He was told that his company's required meat safety plan was inadequate, and despite rewriting it no less than 14 times, his plan was rejected again and again (even though, according to Munsell, the industry average is one to two rewrites before resuming normal operations).
The aforementioned food safety plan, referred to as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), is required of all meat production facilities. However, FSIS policy makes it the responsibility of the facilities to create their own HACCP plan -- providing no guidance. So each time Munsell asked the agency why his plan was inadequate, FSIS officials said it was not in their authority to tell him what he should or should not include.
HACCP, which began in 1998, has received much criticism, including from employees within the agency that oversees it. Munsell explains:
Two common statements from FSIS inspectors and veterinarians since HACCP's advent have been:
1. FSIS implemented HACCP primarily to lessen the agency's legal liability in the event of an outbreak, since the agency cannot be held even partially liable for contaminated meat that FSIS hadn't inspected in the first place. As such, it has been recommended that FSIS-style HACCP be renamed HASSLE, as in "Hazard Analysis Sorta Scientific Liability Evasion."
2. Much more importantly, FSIS hierarchy covets COMFORT in its dealings with the influential big packers. Comfort is best accomplished via deregulating the large packers, relegating the agency to a "hands off" non-involvement role. Since FSIS willingly forfeited its previous policing authority and command-and-control under HACCP, the agency no longer experiences the delicate discomfort involved with attempting enforcement actions against the industry's high volume elite, who now police themselves. As such, FSIS used HACCP as a Trojan Horse that was disingenuously labeled "food safety," but inside the horse was the agency's ultimate objective, which was deregulation and agency comfort.
Munsell, who admits having previously endorsed the deregulated HACCP system, discovered first-hand that it didn't actually apply to small plants "that lack political and economic clout." They are easier enforcement prey.
It wasn't until October 2010 that FSIS implemented a rule that required the agency to collect supplier information when E. coli O157:H7 was detected in ground beef products. Munsell points out that FSIS temporarily demanded such a rule (in an email) in 2002, days before NBC News brought his story to the public eye … but the rule was rescinded two months later for "legal reasons."
Perhaps what the agency meant was that it didn't want to get into legal discomfort against the likes of ConAgra, Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield, etc.
Even though Munsell wasn't reimbursed for any of the loss he incurred due to the agency's targeted actions against him, his claims were validated when individuals from both within industry and inspection ranks heard about his struggle and relayed their own similar experiences.
Interestingly, they all described the same story of FSIS insulating the source slaughter plants from accountability nationwide, the agency's prohibition against its own inspection force to take meaningful actions when witnessing ongoing fecal sanitation problems against the source slaughter plants, and targeting small plants with unjustified enforcement actions.
A GAP investigation into Munsell's case resulted in an interim report, Shielding the Giant: USDA's "Don't Look, Don't Know" Policy for Beef Inspection, that a congressional oversight committee used as a foundation for its own field investigation. Munsell used the subsequent support to organize a network of small meat processors to blow the whistle through GAP on analogous instances of regulators colluding with big business to keep unsafe meat products on the market.
According to Munsell, who now oversees the Foundation for Accountability in Regulatory Enforcement (FARE), agency policies have changed very little, a decade later.
Adequate whistleblower protections for those like Munsell and USDA inspectors trying to do right by the public remain lacking. If truth-tellers were championed rather than ostracized for raising concerns, perhaps the 19.1 million pound recall of ground beef by ConAgra -- more than a year after E. coli O157:H7 was found in Munsell's plant -- could have been prevented. That outbreak led to 45 sicknesses and one death (in 23 states).
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.