By BECKY BOHRER
Associated Press Writer
MILES CITY - John Munsell wants out - out of the small meat processing plant his father started decades ago, out from the control of a federal agency he claims has made his life ''pure hell'' for criticizing its food protection efforts as 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 Miles City plant. Munsell insisted that contaminated meat didn't come from his own 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 sickening 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 both 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 a spokesman for the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service.
''We had a pretty serious issue with E. coli, but the industry came together, and we have made monumental steps in that area,'' said Bo Reagan, of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
But some consumer advocates share Munsell's view that more still should be done, from increased, random testing to mandatory recalls and improved traceback systems.
''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 Public Citizen.
Before January 2002, Munsell said there hadn't been issues with E. coli contamination at his plant. ''We packed and shipped the meat the day it was tested, thinking it would never be positive,'' he said.
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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Munsell said he told the USDA he knew where the tainted beef came from - ConAgra - but contends the agency didn't follow up. An FSIS official, in testimony before a congressional field hearing in December 2002, said the source of contamination couldn't be identified because Munsell's records couldn't ''definitively verify'' a single beef source was used when sampling occurred.
Munsell claims that after he criticized the USDA for its 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 Office of Inspector General faulted ConAgra and FSIS, saying the agency took no ''decisive'' action, despite repeated noncompliance notices for product fecal contamination. The report also found that neither FSIS or the plants involved were prepared for recall possibilities.
Steven Cohen, an FSIS 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 FSIS 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 now operates the former ConAgra plant in Greeley, Colo., that sparked the large recall.
Fred Angulo, 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.
Said Bill Marler, an attorney who's handled E. coli cases and represented many who ate tainted beef in 2002: ''I think that the ConAgra E. coli outbreak was a major tipping point in the meat industry and their commitment to dealing with E. coli.''