Source of Article: http://www.motherjones.com/news/hellraiser/2003/11/ma_573_01.html
By Michael Scherer
Bad Meat made an activist out of John Munsell. Before the tainted beef arrived -- USDA-approved and vacuum-sealed -- at Montana Quality Foods, Munsell's family-run packing plant, this die-hard Republican had no reason to doubt the integrity of the food-safety system. But that changed after the meat he ground for hamburger tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7, a potentially deadly pathogen found in cattle feces that sickens thousands every year.
Instead of tracking the contaminated
meat back to its source, the USDA launched an investigation of Munsell's own operation in Miles City, Montana. Never
mind that the local federal inspector had seen the beef go straight from the
package into a clean grinder -- a USDA spokesman called that testimony
"hearsay." By February 2002, three more tests of meat Munsell was grinding straight from the package came back
positive in USDA tests for E. coli. This time, as he would later testify in a
government hearing, he had paperwork documenting that the beef came from a
single source: ConAgra's massive
Munsell fired off an angry email to the district USDA manager, warning of a
potential public-health emergency, and adding that if no one tracked down the
rest of the bad meat, "both of us should share a cell in
continued whistleblowing -- to Senator Conrad Burns
(R-Mont.), national cattle associations, and his fellow meat processors --
the USDA failed to address the alleged contamination at ConAgra's
"I want the world to know what the real policies are," says Munsell, driving through Miles City, a ranching town on Montana's eastern plain where the casinos compete with saddle shops on Main Street and the men don't take their hats off for much. "The real policies imperil the consumer," he says. "The USDA doesn't want that out."
Lanky, with thinning sandy hair, the
57-year-old Munsell speaks in a measured voice that
barely hints at the fury he feels. Though his battle with the USDA has
crippled his business, Munsell is now on the
offensive. After months of lobbying, he persuaded Senator Burns to convene a
congressional hearing in
Why would the USDA willfully ignore a whistleblower and stand by as feces-tainted meat entered grocery stores? Two decades of federal reforms have left more and more regulation in the hands of the meat industry itself. "Agribusiness runs the show" at the USDA, says Tony Corbo, a food-safety lobbyist with the watchdog group Public Citizen.
In 1998 the USDA stopped testing for
E. coli at the company's
Munsell has steadily been winning allies in his fight for reform. "This guy
is the small businessman. He's done everything right," says Brad Keena, a spokesman for Rep. Denny Rehberg
(R-Mont.), who has followed Munsell's case closely.
"But because he's the middleman, his reputation gets ground into the
problem of the larger company." (Swift & Co., which boughtConAgra's meatpacking operations last year, insists
there is no conclusive evidence that the
To this day, the USDA maintains that it followed all of its own policies in regard to ConAgra and boasts of new safeguards that were put into place after the recall. USDA spokesman Steve Cohen also argues that Munsell never proved the source of the initial E. coli contamination and suggests that he "got a good deal" on the ConAgra meat. Munsell isn't rattled by such accusations. "He is simply grasping at straws," he says.
The negative publicity from the USDA's shutdown of his plant has proved fatal to business. This summer, Munsell put his operation up for sale, foretelling the end of a business that his father -- who, at the age of 84, still serves breakfast to the crew -- founded in 1946. But Munsell has no regrets. What haunts him is not his decision to go public, he says, but the fact that he almost decided to stay quiet, just to protect his own livelihood. "You know what it comes down to?" says the third-generation meatpacker, his steady composure beginning to crack. "My grandkids. The USDA could care less about the health of my grandkids."
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