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USDA Allowed ConAgra to Poison Americans with Tainted Meat

From Agribusiness Examiner #275
By Al Krebs <avkrebs@earthlink.net>
August 4, 2003

FAMILY VICTIMS OF E-COLI POISONING.
WHISTLEBLOWERS, GAP, UNION OFFICIALS
CALL FOR THOROUGH USDA REPORT ON
CONAGRA CONTAMINATED MEAT RECALL

"In an effort to escape the continuous, racking abdominal cramping, Alex curled up into a fetal position and begged me to hold him. I stroked his face, attempting to calm him, to soothe him. I watched in horror his life hemorrhaging away in the hospital bathroom; bowl after bowl of blood and mucus gushed from his little body. Later, I helped change blood-soaked diapers that he had to wear after he could no longer stand or walk. Alex's screams were followed by silence as the evil toxins attacked his brain causing him to lose neurological control. His eyes crossed and he suffered tremors and delusions. He no longer knew who I was." —Nancy Donley, mother of Alex and President of Safe Tables Our Priority

Appearing with families of victims of food poisoning, whistleblowers and food industry union officials, Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), demanded that the Inspector General for the United States Department of Agriculture promptly report to the American public on the E. coli o157:H7 food
poisoning outbreak at a ConAgra food processing plant last summer.

Devine's call came with the release of the GAP's investigative report: "Shielding the Giant: U.S. Department of Agriculture's `Don't Look, Don't Know' Policy for Beef Inspection" at a July 28 Washington, D.C.press conference.

The Government Accountability Project, a leading whistleblower defense organization, released its investigative report on the one year anniversary of the third largest meat recall in U.S. History. On June 30, 2002, ConAgra recalled 354,300 pounds of E. coli contaminated beef, which represented one day's production on May 31. On July 19th, ConAgra expanded the recall to 19 million pounds of tainted meat. But, for months before the recall, local USDA inspectors and the owner of a small, Montana meat processor had been trying to tell USDA leadership that tainted meat was coming from ConAgra since August, 2000.

Top USDA officials actively covered-up the problems at ConAgra, allowing tainted meat to flow month after month into the stream of commerce under the USDA seal of wholesomeness. Numerous whistleblowers during GAP's investigation disclosed that top USDA officials took actions to shield the giant food conglomerate from complying with food safety laws while using the same laws to bully small, often family-run, businesses.

"The evidence is in while the American public waits for an honest and thorough report on the ConAgra tainted meat recall. Day by day, our suspicions increase that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in cahoots with ConAgra. We have conducted our own investigation into the ConAgra tainted meat recall and our ample evidence proves that the USDA aggressively enforced a 'Don't Look, Don't Tell' policy in its dealings with ConAgra," said Devine.

The key findings of the investigative report include:

* The American public's exposure to E. coli o157:H7 began at least two years before ConAgra's tainted meat recall in June of 2002.

* The USDA's records system is fundamentally flawed and is designed to avoid knowing the source of tainted beef.

* ConAgra slickly took advantage of the government's noninterference policy of
"Don't Look, Don't Tell."

* The USDA engages in persistent, ugly retaliation against anyone who attempted to expose its dereliction of duty: To inform the public of tainted meat coming into the stream of commerce. The USDA aided and abetted ConAgra in blaming its problems on a small, family-owned meat processor in Montana

* A regulatory double standard has comprised the integrity of the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety program. HACCP was designed as an early warning system on finding deadly contaminants in food. The USDA used HACCP to protect ConAgra, not the consumer.

* The facts demonstrating ConAgra's strong-arm tactics against a small producer perpetuate a longstanding USDA pattern where the messenger is blamed and chosen as the fall guy.

"Due to politically motivated, self-serving and arbitrary practices by the USDA, I have
been forced to list my business for sale," said John Munsell, owner of Montana
Quality Foods and whose experience with ConAgra and USDA is the catalyst for GAP's investigation. "My meat processing plant has been in my family for 57 years.
When I tried to report the truth of this tainted meat tragedy last summer, I learned that
the USDA is against the truth and for shielding the big guy from public embarrassment. The consumer and small producers like me are the losers in this game."

According to food inspection team members who have blown the whistle to GAP, the USDA shielded ConAgra by a policy that is nothing less than a another cover-up harmful to the consumer and public health. By its "Don't Look, Don't Know" policy for beef inspection, the USDA chose ignorance of the facts over the truth that ConAgra was given the seal of approval for meat that was infected with E. coli many months before the 19 million pounds of tainted beef recalled in June, 2002.

"Because of fear of reprisal, inspectors and veterinarians with the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) cannot come forward publicly and report the failures in the food safety system," said William G. Hughes, an official with the National Association of Federal Veterinarians. "A deliberate climate of fear intimidation has been created among those who actually conduct the in-plant inspections and oversight at meat processing plants."

In addition to a call for a prompt report from the Inspector General, the Government
Accountability Project has put forth several recommendations, including:

* ConAgra should fully disclose what it knew and when it knew about the full scope of meat produced with E. coli o157:H7.

* ConAgra should maintain necessary records so that any products later found not to be wholesome can be traced back for two years, as required by law.

* USDA should develop for independent peer review a program for consistent enforcement that ends the double standard between large and small or very small
meat processing facilities.

* USDA should request that the Office of the Inspector General expand its investigation to cover the additional issues raised in the GAP report, such as failure to act on evidence since the summer of 2000 that ConAgra has been shipping tainted meat and not alerting downstream customers or consumers who relied on USDA's seal of approval.

For more information, call Jack Pannell, Communications Director, Government Accountability Project (202/408-0034).

As the nation's leading whistleblower organization, The Government Accountability
Project 's mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability through advancing free speech in the workplace and
ethical conduct, litigating whistleblower cases, and developing policy and legal reforms of whistleblower laws.

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