I had a nice chat with Mike Keefe-Feldman of the Missoula Independent about John Munsell, the owner of Montana Quality Foods meat packing plant, who is suing the USDA. As the Independent puts it, it’s a lawsuit which “if successful, could bring about the most significant changes to America’s meat-inspection system since the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 tried to limit the amount of crap one could legally shovel into a sausage.”

“This is a watershed moment for meat inspection and public health,” Munsell writes in a statement describing his motivation. In a phone interview, Munsell explains that his suit wouldn’t be necessary had the USDA not fallen victim to “agency capture,” meaning that a number of high-ranking USDA officials have come from within the corporate meat packing industry and are now unwilling to implement practices that could hurt the industry financially. Instead, Munsell says, the agency has turned to reliance on ineffective industry self-policing measures.

“The USDA doesn’t have the courage to do its job anymore,” he says.

Munsell’s meat packing plant was shipped E. coli contaminated beef from ConAgra as early as January 2002. But when Munsell notified the USDA, the only action taken was to make Munsell rewrite his Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plan 14 times and pay for additional testing while suspending him from grinding his own beef for four months. In the end, Munsell was right. The end result was a 2002 recall of nearly 19 million pounds of ConAgra beef. Munsell is suing for more than just compensation for what he perceives as retaliation for his whistleblowing. He’s also suing to change the system.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based managing partner at the law firm of Marler Clark and thenation’s leading food-illness lawyer, called Munsell “the Don Quixote of the system for the USDA” in a phone interview with the Independent.

Marler says the public typically isn’t aware of the magnitude of the E. coli problem because, as in many of his own cases, those who suffer from E. coli receive compensation only by signing a gag order, thus keeping outbreaks out of the public eye.

“Lots of cases that deal with restaurant chains never show up on our website because they pay my clients millions of dollars for a confidentiality agreement,” Marler says.

The Centers for Disease Control reported 443 confirmed cases of E. coli in 2003. Marler says the number is probably much higher, because E. coli in humans often goes unreported, since symptoms typically don’t show until about three days after consumption of contaminated food. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conclude that E. coli causes approximately 75,000 illnesses a year in the United States, ranging from severe diarrhea to death. Marler says he sees about 100 cases in a year, but even if Marler wins settlements for those affected by E. coli, Munsell says that a larger problem within the system goes unchecked.

“When the [affected] family takes their well-deserved money, nothing else is done [by the USDA],” Munsell says. “No improvements are then made to the meat system. A year ago, Con Agra reported their annual net income as $1.9 billion. So if they have to pay a family $200,000, it’s no big deal.”

Munsell is facing an uphill battle for sure, but good for him.