MILES CITY, Mont. - John Munsell wants out — out of the small meat processing plant his father started decades ago and out from the control of a federal agency he claims has made his life ‘‘pure hell’’ for saying its food protection efforts are lax.
‘‘Since this whole fiasco started from USDA, I’ve gotten little sleep, had a lot of stress. My marriage has suffered,’’ Munsell said. ‘‘I’ve always had a full-time job here. Now, it’s two full-time jobs, and it’s going to kill me.’’
In early 2002, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector found beef contaminated with the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria at Munsell’s plant. He insisted that contaminated meat didn’t come from his plant and accused the USDA of failing to trace the beef to the large meatpacker who sent it to him.
That packer, ConAgra Beef Co., was involved months later in one of the nation’s largest beef recalls — some 18 million pounds. Tainted meat was linked to the illnesses of dozens of people.
Today, Munsell is trying to sell his business, Montana Quality Foods. He’s also suing the USDA, alleging the agency retaliated against him for speaking out. He remains unconvinced the USDA has measures in place to prevent another such outbreak and said he’ll keep fighting for better consumer protections.
Officials from the USDA and the industry take issue with Munsell’s criticisms, saying E. coli infections are down, particularly in the past two years as new controls have been put in place at slaughterhouses and packing plants. Recalls and the amount of recalled product due to E. coli are also down, according to Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service. He declined comment on Munsell’s lawsuit.
But some consumer advocates share Munsell’s view that more still should be done, from increased, random testing to mandatory recalls and improved systems to trace contaminated meat to its source.
‘‘I don’t think enough has changed for people to think their food is safer,’’ said Patty Lovera, deputy director of the energy and environment program for the watchdog group Public Citizen.
Before January 2002, Munsell said there hadn’t been issues with E. coli contamination at his plant. But one test late that month was positive for E. coli, the first of several samples that would return that way. Munsell recalled 270 pounds of ground beef.
Meat can be contaminated during slaughter, and people who eat contaminated, undercooked beef can get sick. Annually, there are roughly 73,000 cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection in the United States and 61 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Munsell said he told the USDA he knew the beef came from ConAgra, but contends the agency didn’t follow up. A food safety official, in testimony before a congressional field hearing in 2002, said the source of contamination couldn’t be identified because Munsell’s records couldn’t ‘‘definitively verify’’ a single beef source was used.
Munsell claims that after he criticized the USDA’s investigation, the agency retaliated by demanding he rewrite repeatedly a plan detailing possible hazards and controls at his plant.
Tim Osterloh, office manager at Galligan Wholesale Meat Co., in Denver, said Galligan also came under intense scrutiny by the USDA after testing found beef samples contaminated by E. coli. Osterloh said that beef also came from ConAgra.
‘‘It was well over two years before they were done messing with us on this,’’ he said.
A 2003 report by the USDA inspector general faulted Con-Agra and the food safety agency, saying the agency took no ‘‘decisive’’ action, and that neither agency nor the plants involved were prepared for recall possibilities.
Steven Cohen, an food safety spokesman, said the agency has enacted numerous changes since the E. coli outbreak, including improved training for inspectors and requiring greater accountability from supervisors. Plants that do their own testing are no longer exempt from agency testing, and the food safety service is moving toward increased testing at higher-volume facilities, he said.
Lovera, of Public Citizen, said federal inspectors spend much of their time examining a company’s paperwork instead of inspecting meat.
Certain technologies used to curb or kill E. coli allow packers to ship product without dealing with potential problem sources in their plants, she said.
Jim Herlihy, a spokesman for Swift & Co., disagrees. ‘‘This issue is not contamination in the plant; the issue is the contamination that is in nature, that comes in on the hides of animals,’’ he said. Swift operates the former ConAgra plant in Greeley, Colo., that sparked the recall.
Fred Angulo, a veterinarian with the CDC, believes industry is doing something right. He cites data showing a 42 percent drop in E. coli incidence between 1996 and 2004, including what he called remarkable declines in the past two years.
‘‘All indications we have are the beef industry made remarkable investments in their processing plants to contribute to this decline,’’ he said.
The ConAgra outbreak was a major tipping point for the meat industry and its commitment to dealing with E. coli, said Bill Marler, an attorney who’s handled e. coli cases and represented many who ate tainted beef in 2002.
Barbara Kowalcyk, a biostatistician and presidentelect of Safe Tables Our Priority, refuses to read too much into the figures. Kowalcyk — whose son, Kevin, died in 2001 due to E. coli — says it’s still unclear how much credit the industry deserves.
‘‘To say that the overall incidence is down and that meat is safer, I don’t think is accurate,’’ she said.