The Associated Press reports that small meat processing plants feel the pressure from USDA inspections far more than their larger corporate counterparts, as John Munsell of Montana Quality Foods and Tom Osterloh of Galligan Wholesale Meat Company learned.
Both plants tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 from processing meat products originally provided by ConAgra in 2002. However, both processors feel that the USDA failed to follow up on their claims to check the large meatpacker that sent the meat to them.
Months later, ConAgra was involved in one of the nation’s largest beef recalls – 18 million pounds. Tainted meat from ConAgra was linked to dozens of infected people.
In 2003, the Office of Inspector General faulted ConAgra and the Federal Food Safety and Inspection Service, saying the agency took no “decisive” action.
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. Steven Cohen, an FSIS spokesman, said the agency has enacted numerous changes since the 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 FSIS is moving toward increased testing at higher-volume facilities.
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.