The Grind

By Tom Lutey

If there’s E. coli in your hamburger, there are feces in your meat, plain and simple, which is about all Miles City butcher John Munsell and federal inspectors could agree on.

After finding E. coli in Munsell’s hamburger back in 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA) moved to shut him down. But Munsell insisted the product he ground came from a much larger meatpacker and that a larger health crisis was imminent if USDA didn’t trace the contamination upstream. His shop didn’t butcher the meat off the carcass, meaning there was no way it could be the source of contamination. He had the packaging labels to prove where the meat came from, but the USDA wouldn’t follow the trail.

As his battle to redirect the USDA’s investigation failed, Munsell moved his packaging labels to a safety deposit box for safe keeping and braced for the worst.

“They did not allow me to use my grinder for four months,” Munsell said. “After four months, my supplier, ConAgra, announced a 19-million-pound recall.”

The food poisoning at ConAgra sickened 46 people in 23 states and killed one person. The USDA wound up shutting down the ConAgra plant in Greeley, Colorado, because of repeated incidents of beef carcasses entering the food supply contaminated with feces.

The USDA’s handling of the case sparked a federal investigation. Laws exempted large meatpackers like ConAgra from USDA tests. The USDA did not believe it had the authority to review E. coli testing by the company, according to an audit by the Office of the Inspector General. Records of where the meat was shipped were so poor, only 3 million of the 18.6 million pounds recalled were ever found. Though repeatedly contacted for this story, the USDA declined to comment.

More than 2,000 people in the United States were hospitalized in 2011 because of E. coli poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Meat and dairy products are common sources of E. coli, but any food exposed to feces is a problem.

Driven out of the meat business, Munsell became a whistleblower. He spent the next 10 years telling anyone willing to listen about meat inspection policies that endangered public health.

One person willing to listen to Munsell was Seattle attorney Bill Marler. Marler made a name for himself representing victims in a 1993 E. coli outbreak linked to Jack in the Box hamburgers. The outbreak killed four and sickened 623 people. In the incident’s aftermath, the federal government for the first time declared E. coli an illegal substance when found in food.

Marler had devoted his practice to food safety by the time Munsell called in 2002, worried the USDA’s refusal to trace his contaminated meat back to its source would result in a widespread food poisoning.

“The USDA is after me when they should be paying attention to ConAgra before something happens,” Marler remembered Munsell saying. The ConAgra recall was still months away. The two men had never met and the attorney did little with the butcher’s information, which Marler said he regrets to this day and has apologized to Munsell about.

Marler has since made room in his online publication, Food Safety News, for Munsell’s multipart dissertation of how the USDA’s failure to properly source E. coli endangered the public.

What Munsell needed in 2002 was a congressperson willing to sponsor a law forcing the USDA to trace contaminated meat to its source. Ultimately, it took another butcher, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, to get the bill passed.

“I think the issue is getting USDA inspectors to focus on where the problems really are,” Tester said.

Like Munsell, Tester had inherited a small-town, family butcher business started in the 1950s. Tester ran his shop for 20 years before closing to focus on farming. He knew the community pressure Munsell would be under if his meat sickened anyone, which it didn’t. Munsell pulled 237 pounds of hamburger before anyone became sick. However, the stigma of being forced to stop grinding hamburger for four months ultimately prompted Munsell to sell.

Tester succeeded in helping to change the USDA’s trace-back laws in late 2011. The USDA began tracing E. coli back to the source in July 2012, though food safety advocates say there’s more to be done. As recently as fall 2013, even broader trace-back rules were being proposed in the U.S. Senate.

Munsell could have gone along with the USDA’s conclusions about where his E. coli originated and stayed in business. Instead, he’s now a sales representative for Redneck Brand Smoked Meats. He said he has no regrets, despite being driven from a business in need of processors willing to speak out about food poisoning.

“At the time, the No. 1 USDA guy in Montana, a guy named Grady Skaggs, told me, ‘John, if you had done what they told you, you would have been up and running,’” Munsell said. “Oh no, if I’d known then what I know now, I would have documented everything even better and really gone after them, and gone to the media directly.”

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Tom Lutey, of the Billings Gazette, is Montana’s foremost ag reporter. He is a 1995 graduate of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.