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Meat processor critical of USDA sues, alleges retaliation

Lincoln Journal-Star reports that a Montana meat processor who tried to warn federal officials about contaminated beef from a large meatpacker is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
John Munsell of Miles City claims he was retaliated against for criticizing the agency’s actions in protecting the beef supply from E. coli contamination.
Munsell is seeking unspecified punitive, economic and general damages from the USDA, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Nathaniel Clark, identified in the suit as a district office manager with the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Munsell claims in the lawsuit that the government retaliated against him and that he was required numerous times to rewrite a plan detailing potential hazards and controls “on threat of withdrawal of USDA inspectors” and approval of the company’s beef products.


The dispute dates back to January 2002, when Munsell, an owner of Montana Quality Foods and Processing Inc., was notified by an FSIS “recall committee” that a ground beef sample taken from his facility was positive for E. coli.
Munsell, according to the lawsuit, told officials the contaminated beef had come from a large plant. He contends his warnings were ignored and federal officials declined to trace the source.
The lawsuit said Munsell agreed to a voluntary recall of 270 pounds of ground beef, a move that left his employees dealing with calls from “upset and frightened consumers” as well as “negative media coverage.”
Three samples taken in February 2002 also came back positive, but Munsell determined that they had come from meat purchased from a ConAgra plant, according to the lawsuit.
ConAgra Beef recalled about 19 million pounds of beef in the summer of 2002 because of E. coli contamination at a plant in Greeley, Colo. It was one of the largest recalls in history. Tainted meat was linked to more than 40 illnesses and one death.
People may get sick by eating contaminated meat that has not been cooked thoroughly. E. coli infection can cause diarrhea and stomach cramps and in some cases be fatal. The bacteria can be spread during slaughter.
ConAgra Beef was an interest of ConAgra Foods, of Omaha, Neb.; the company has since sold it, a spokesman said.
Munsell said in the lawsuit that no consumer deaths or illnesses linked to adulterated beef have been attributed to products processed by his company.
Since his dispute with the USDA, Munsell has become a vocal critic of government inspection procedures. He contends the agency does not do enough to ensure that the large plants he and other small processors buy meat from control potential contamination and that agency policies keep inspectors at small plants from performing tests that may show “adulterated” meat, bearing a USDA mark of inspection, was shipped to them by large plants, the lawsuit said.
Munsell claims he has and continues to suffer loss of profits and reputation, as well as emotional distress.
Munsell said Thursday that the lawsuit is over more than just money.
“The primary focus of this lawsuit is to publicly expose the USDA’s meat inspection policies and to demand common sense changes,” he said. “If changes do not occur, the fiasco that occurred here will occur many, many times.”

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