John Munsell, known to the readers of Mother Jones as – “Meatpacking Maverick – Montana meatpacker John Munsell’s against-the-odds struggle for improved food safety” – by Michael Scherer, and to the readers of Marler Blog, one of its most consistent commentators. John is an unlikely American Hero.
I met John – well talked to him in the early spring of 2002. I had been blitzing the USDA and FSIS with Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIA’s) about all of their E. coli O157:H7 recalls in 2001 into 2002. Because that information was not readily available to the pubic (and many health departments) I posted it on www.fsis-pfge.org – and still do. In my sweep of all recalls I received the information about a very small recall (270 pounds), with no reported illnesses, from Munsell’s and his father’s Montana Quality Foods of Miles City Montana. I paid it no mind until John’s call.
I now remember the call like it was yesterday. I was sitting in my corner office high above the Seattle skyline. John’s call came in and the first thing he asked was “did my product hurt anyone?” A bit taken aback – because an owner of a business was calling me directly (I usually hear from some lawyer) – I answered, “No, I am not aware of any reported illnesses.”
John then told me his story – much better told by Mr. Scherer below. But, the thing I recall the most is when he said, “Mr. Marler, the E. coli contaminated meat came from ConAgra’s Greely plant. It was contaminated before it came to us.” He then said, “USDA is after me when they should be paying attention to ConAgra before something happens.” He offered to send me documents proving that the contaminated meat was really ConAgra’s. I said sure.
A few days later I got a pile of documents as John promissed. I set them on a table in my office. John called a few times more that spring, but I ignored him – and his documents.
Months later, I was driving back from a family vacation on July 5, with my seven-year-old asleep in the car when my cell phone rang. It was counsel for ConAgra. You see (although I did not know it then) on June 30, 2002, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced the recall of 354,200 pounds of ground beef manufactured at the ConAgra Beef Company plant in Greeley, Colorado. He asked if ConAgra could retain my firm to represent them in a “bit of an E. coli problem.” I said, “Thanks for the offer, but let me check to see if we are already representing victims.”
Both a bit stunned by the call from ConAgra and missing the recall, I called the office and found that we had already been called by a family whose young daughter was still hospitalized struggling against E. coli O157:H7 induced Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. I declined ConAgra’s offer.
I then remembered John Munsell’s call and the documents still sitting in my office that I, like the USDA and FSIS, had ignored.
By July 12, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) disclosed that 17 Colorado residents had been infected with E. coli O157:H7. Several other cases were subsequently reported in neighboring states. Three days later, on July 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the strain of E. coli O157:H7 that had infected the 17 sickened individuals was genetically indistinguishable from the strain isolated from the recalled ConAgra beef. On July 19, 2002, FSIS expanded the ConAgra ground beef recall to 18.6 million pounds of ground beef. In the weeks that followed the nationwide recall, more than 45 people in 23 states reported illnesses linked to the contaminated ground beef.
Reports indicated that ConAgra received 31 violations in the 13 months before its June and July 2002 ground beef recalls, and a September 13, 2002 letter issued by the following congressional members: Representatives Mary Kaptur, Rosa DeLauro, Henry Waxman and Senator Richard Durbin demanded to know why the USDA and ConAgra had failed to alert the public to possible contamination until more than two months after they knew there was contamination at the plant. Moreover, they intimated that ConAgra hindered the USDA investigation by refusing to turn over information about its Greeley slaughterhouses. On November 15, 2002, the USDA shut down the ConAgra plant in Greeley (known as Swift and Co.), due to repeated failures to prevent fecal contamination of carcasses. The plant has since reopened.
I eventually represented most of the victims of the E. coli outbreak, which led to at least 46 illnesses and one death. Among the victims were an Ohio childcare worker, a Colorado security officer who was battling forest fires, and young children in Colorado, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Several of them were hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a frightening complication of E. coli O157:H7 infection that can lead to kidney failure and neurological impairment.
John, I am sorry that I did not pay attention to you when you called and do something to avoid the outbreak. I think about this everyday.
Months into the outbreak I met with John, his dad and John’s wife. I flew into Rapid City, South Dakota and drove through Sturgis, Spearfish on to Miles City, Montana. His dad made me pancakes along with what was left of his crew. John cooked a great steak that night. He said the prayer over dinner.
For lawyer readers, see the Trial and Appeals Court Decisions.
Read the full Mother Jones Article Below:
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 O157: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 Greeley, Colorado, facility, which kills as many cows in three hours as Montana Quality Foods handles in a year.
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 Alcatraz." The agency moved immediately and aggressively—not to recall meat from Greeley, but to shut down Munsell’s grinding operation, a punishment that lasted four months.
Despite Munsell’s 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 Greeley plant. Then, in July 2002, Munsell’s worst fears came true. E. coli-tainted burger from Greeley killed an Ohio woman and sickened at least 35 others. ConAgra then recalled 19 million pounds of beef, one of the largest recalls in history. (As much as 80 percent of the meat had already been consumed.)
"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 Billings last December, where Munsell testified on the failings of USDA inspections. Munsell also convinced the Government Accountability Project (GAP)—the nation’s leading whistleblower organization—to investigate the USDA’s handling of his case. In July 2003, GAP released a major report titled "Shielding the Giant: USDA’s ‘Don’t Look, Don’t Know’ Policy for Beef Inspection." "The ConAgra-Munsell scandal," it concluded, "perpetuates a long-standing USDA pattern to blame the messenger and scapegoat the victims, rather than stand behind its seal of wholesomeness."
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 Greeley facility, saying internal safeguards were sufficient. While tests continued at small plants like Munsell’s, the USDA allowed big packers to conduct their own in-house tests. Indeed, according to the congressional investigation of the ConAgra recall initiated by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), 33 in-house tests conducted at ConAgra’s Greeley facility in the month before the recall came back positive for E. coli contamination. ConAgra failed to alert the USDA. In a scathing letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman this spring, Waxman wrote that the USDA’s policy of industry self-regulation "appears grossly inadequate to protect the public health."
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 bought ConAgra’s meatpacking operations last year, insists there is no conclusive evidence that the Greeley plant was responsible for Munsell’s bad meat.)
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."