Montanans, remember this name: John Munsell. Munsell, owner of Montana Quality Foods meat packing plant in Miles City, has just dropped a bomb of a lawsuit on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that, 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.
Munsell’s family-owned operation was shipped beef contaminated with E. coli from the multinational ConAgra corporation as early as January 2002, but when Munsell notified the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the government responded by making him 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.
Convinced he could prove the contamination originated at another source, Munsell even penned an e-mail to a USDA district office manager in Minneapolis in which he wrote, “If you and I, realizing all the details now, cover this up and do nothing about it and somebody gets sick as a result, then you and I need to share a cell in Alcatraz.” (see “Watching the inspectors,” Aug. 7, 2003). It later turned out that as Munsell had suspected, ConAgra’s beef was indeed contaminated, and the end result was a 2002 recall of nearly 19 million pounds of ConAgra beef—one of the largest beef recalls in history—and plenty of red faces at the USDA.
On Oct. 13, after a year and a half of providing data and research materials to the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which identifies itself as “the nation’s leading whistleblower organization,” GAP, on behalf of Munsell, filed suit against the USDA, alleging that the agency violated the Federal Meat Inspection Act and “began a campaign of unfair and unwarranted regulatory enforcement actions against [Munsell] in retaliation for his allegations to Congress and top USDA officials.”
Munsell filed suit against the USDA not just over compensation for what he perceives as retaliation for his whistleblowing, but also in an attempt to mandate fundamental changes in the way the USDA operates. Specifically, Munsell’s suit seeks to obligate the USDA to ensure thorough inspection of beef to detect E. coli before that beef makes its way from large plants like ConAgra’s to small plants like Munsell’s. The suit also seeks to forbid the USDA from taking enforcement actions against small plants when those plants can prove that E. coli contamination originated in the larger plants.
“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.
Bill Marler, a Seattle-based managing partner at the law firm of Marler Clark and the nation’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 knows he’s got an uphill battle. If he wins his suit and the policies he’s seeking are enforced, the decision will amount to tactic admission that the USDA has been acting as a rubber stamp for the meat-packing industry—a potential embarrassment that he thinks the government will stop at nothing to avoid.
Steven Cohen, a spokesman with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, declined to comment, saying that it is policy not to discuss any lawsuit against the government while a suit remains active.
Although he does seek compensation of an undisclosed amount, Munsell says his suit is about policy change more than money.
“This is not an issue of John Munsell versus the USDA,” Munsell says. “It’s an issue of the USDA abdicating its legislative mandates to public health, and it’s got to stop before more people get sick or die.”