By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
On Christmas morning last year, Steven Spiritas got the news he dreaded most: The U.S. Department of Agriculture had found a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria in a shipment of his ground beef. He knew they'd find it eventually. How could they not? As Spiritas saw it, the USDA had been out to get him ever since he'd challenged the federal agency's new testing procedures in court. Though he'd never had problems with bacterial contamination during the three decades Supreme Beef had been in business in Dallas, he knew the USDA was going to test his beef until they found trouble; one of the new inspectors, Spiritas says, even bragged openly about his mission to run Supreme Beef out of business.
Now the USDA had dealt the killing blow.
"We issued a recall that day, Christmas Day," Spiritas says, sitting in his upper-floor office, one of the only places in Supreme Beef's aging meat-grinding plant where the power is still on. "It was a nightmare. That's when the newspapers went crazy on us. All this stuff."
A national recall for a ground-beef company like Supreme Beef isn't merely an embarrassment--it's a disaster. Consumers are frightened and sickened at the thought of what they view as fecal contamination of beef. Retailers can't get the product off the shelf fast enough. For Spiritas, or any other ground-beef manufacturer, there is no defense. Beef found with Escherichia coli O157:H7 is considered just as foul and unfit for humans as if it were mixed with dead rats ground up whole.
"The recall ruined us," Spiritas says bitterly. "We got massive press. Then they terminated our school-lunch contracts. We got a lot of adverse press on that, and it was not accurate. We became radioactive to suppliers, and we became radioactive to customers. They were scared to death."
Today, the results of the recall are conveyed most eloquently by the silent machinery in the darkened plant and by a framed photograph on Spiritas' desk that he's turned face-down in disgust. It's a shot of him and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in better times.
Spiritas, Supreme Beef's 55-year-old president and chief executive officer, wondered how things could have gone wrong so quickly for his 400-employee company. Before tangling with the USDA, the family-owned Supreme Beef was one of the Southwest's largest ground-beef producers. With a grinding plant near Fair Park and a slaughtering plant in Ladonia, in Fannin County, Supreme was cranking out more than a half-million pounds of USDA-approved ground beef a day and selling to mega-retailers such as Wal-Mart, Tom Thumb, and Albertson's, as well as fast-food restaurants such as Dairy Queen and Taco Bueno. Supreme Beef held a lucrative contract to supply beef for school lunches for, among others, the Dallas Independent School District, and was in top standing with the federal government in all respects. The company had never recorded a positive E. coli test in thousands of tests conducted regularly during three decades of production, and no one had ever gotten sick from Supreme Beef's product. The company's reputation was stellar.
But that was before the company was dragged kicking and screaming onto the USDA's killing floor. The USDA's problem with Supreme Beef wasn't E. coli--not at first. In fact, while the USDA's actions were bankrupting Spiritas' ground-beef company, Supreme was home to what others in the industry considered one of the cleanest plants in the United States. Because of intense federal scrutiny, it was certainly the most heavily inspected and tested. The California-based National Meat Association, one of very few beef-industry voices that fearlessly supported Supreme Beef when it got in trouble, backs up everything Spiritas says about how his meat-grinding plant was a model of cleanliness and how it was run out of business by the USDA. Rosemary Mucklow, the association's executive director, says that Supreme Beef's operation was highly regarded, and that Spiritas still is.
"He is a man of great respect. He's loved and feared as a good competitor in the business by his peers," she says. "What happened to him was a shocking hit, if you will, to others in the industry."
Even one of the USDA's top administrators, Tom Billy, swore in federal court that, as far as he or anyone else at the USDA was concerned, Supreme Beef's operation was clean and wasn't the problem.