Meatpacking Maverick - Montana meatpacker John Munsell's against-the-odds struggle for improved food safety


(Quote from John: "A blanket prohibition of downers could actually hurt public health by preventing detection of mad cows that are ambulatory," said John Munsell, operator of Montana Quality Foods and Processing in Miles City and long a critic of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection procedures. From article in the Missoulian, 1-1-2004: )


November/December 2003 Issue

By Michael Scherer,


Mother Jones Magazine

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San Francisco, CA 94103


Fax: 415-665-6696

To submit a Letter to the Editor:

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 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 [to get] 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 boughtConAgra'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."

Copyright 2003 The Foundation for National Progress

Additional recommended reading:

More from John Munsell:

January 1, 2004


The ramifications on this are numerous. First of all, those of us in the industry know that the broken leg doesn't need to be a "fresh" break in order for the meat to be wholesome. Over the years, we have killed numerous broken-leg animals which had had the condition for many months. Some of these animals do heal up, although the leg is still broken and the animal cannot place any weight on the leg. Such animals have absolutely no temperature or fever or disease problem, although in such an instance substantial trimming must be done on the affected leg because of bruises/scar tissue which have built up over time. Typically, these animals are ambulatory, and not downers.

Also, the article quoted at the bottom of this correspondence has a small misquote, which is most important. It should have stated "A blanket prohibition of downers could actually hurt public health by preventing detection of mad cows that are NON AMBULATORY (emphasis added)".

I agree that ranchers should still be able to have their animals, whether the animals are ambulatory or not, processed for home consumption.

Having said that, I must add that any INSPECTED plant which kills and processes non-ambulatory animals is acting foolishly. Why? If that downer was infected, then the entire day's production is subject to recall, such is currently happening in Washington. Vern's Moses Lake Meats killed 20 head on the day that the BSE cow was killed.

The thinking is that the one BSE cow infected the entire kill floor, which is why the meat from all 20 head is being recalled. We have to admit that since the spinal cord carries the deadly prion, that the beef splitting saw which cut that back bone in half may have been contaminated, cross-contaminating all subsequent animals slaughtered that day. A partial answer would be to kill "suspect downers" at the end of the shift, and to bone and process such meat at the end of a processing shift, after all other slaughter and processing of "normal" animals has been concluded.

Because of the adverse publicity, I think it best for any processor, whether inspected or non-inspected, to totally avoid any slaughter and/or processing of any and all downers. The potential resulting aftermath of investigations could very well hurt the viability of that operation, such as is happening to the two processors in Oregon which innocently processed the meat emanating from the 20 head killed on that fateful day in Moses Lake, WA.

Hopefully, USDA will issue a revised policy after the BSE dust has settled which will allow for the slaughter of broken-leg animals, both ambulatory and non-ambulatory, whether for custom use or resale into the market place.

Admittedly, complete and scientific procedures would need to be implemented prior to allowing such slaughter. This isn't rocket science, and such procedures could be hammered out within days if well-intentioned people from a variety of backgrounds could just sit down around a table, in the absence of political motivations, and simply be truthful with each other.

Now is not the time, as our motives could be questioned in the midst of this emotionally-charged first instance of BSE in America. Suggesting such alternatives could be politically fatal to incumbents right now, given the existing circumstances.