Slaughterhouse Jive

Dallas-based Supreme Beef fought what it believes are unfair regulations, only to wind up on the USDA's killing floor

The USDA agreed to put Supreme Beef under HACCP six months early. That meant inspectors could randomly select Supreme Beef for testing at any time.

Under the HACCP program, inspectors working for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service can show up at any time and take 53 samples--one a day--of ground beef from a plant like Supreme Beef's. Out of 53 samples, up to five could test positive for salmonella. If a plant received a passing grade by showing five or fewer positive samples, it went back into the random pool of meat plants and might not be tested again for six months.

But if a plant failed, the USDA required the company to take corrective action. Once that was done, the USDA immediately tested another batch of 53 samples, and the process was repeated. Under the USDA's policy, if a plant failed batch testing three times in a row (three strikes and you're out, one USDA official says), then the inspectors can be withdrawn and the producer shut down.

Steven Spiritas, flanked by his twin sons, Ryan and Jason, believes the USDA ran his family-owned beef plant out of business.
Mark Graham
Steven Spiritas, flanked by his twin sons, Ryan and Jason, believes the USDA ran his family-owned beef plant out of business.

Supreme Beef entered the HACCP program in June 1998. In February 1999, Spiritas learned that Supreme Beef had failed its first phase of testing--badly. He was shocked.

"I wasn't really in the loop at that point, but I knew our operations people were on top of it. We had a quality control department that consisted of 11 people," he says. "We had 31 people cleaning this plant at night. We had a damn good management team that was on top of it."

Spiritas says his company went all out to determine what was going on. They began their own testing, using a part of each ground-beef sample that was to be tested by the USDA, and hired IDEXX, a private microbiological testing firm. Spiritas told IDEXX to find the problem. "We said, you've got a blank check. You go in, and you test our plant. You do whatever you need to do to test our plant, test our equipment, and test the meat we are bringing in, and then give me a report. I want to know if there is any problem, any way that Supreme Beef is contributing to salmonella in the meat," Spiritas says.

"They did floors, walls, ceilings, equipment," he says, waving his arms up and down. "If this was a conveyer, they'd go into the most difficult spot, where there is a crack, almost impossible to clean. They didn't find a single positive [test]."

In July 1999, the USDA notified Supreme Beef that it had failed a second round of testing. There were fewer positives for salmonella, but it was still a failure overall. One more failing round, and Supreme Beef could be shut down. Supreme Beef's own testing--of samples taken directly from the USDA's samples--was not showing as much salmonella.

By then, IDEXX had determined the source of the salmonella contamination. Spiritas was right: It wasn't the grinding plant; it was the beef itself. Supreme Beef didn't do any slaughtering at its Dallas plant. For most of its ground beef, it bought what is known in the industry as boneless beef trimmings. Its suppliers cut up sides of beef for steaks and roasts, and Supreme Beef bought what was left over for ground beef. This is how ground beef is commonly made. All of the beef trimmings Supreme Beef used--including beef from its slaughtering plant in Ladonia, which provided 35 percent of the trimmings--were USDA-approved and were being produced under the HACCP umbrella. But, while HACCP requires tests for salmonella during the slaughtering phase, the trimmings, the final product delivered to Spiritas, are under no standards at all. Because salmonella testing on beef carcasses is hit-or-miss, a carcass that is about to be cut up might not test positive for salmonella even when it is present. The majority of the trimmings Supreme Beef bought were from North Texas-area suppliers, and Supreme Beef's testing showed that all of them, every single supplier they tested, were selling beef trimmings containing salmonella.

An IDEXX official confirmed those test results in an interview with the Observer.

The beef was tested inside the suppliers' own shipping containers before being transported into Supreme's Dallas plant, Spiritas says. Mixing that beef into a larger batch of ground beef would naturally spread the bacteria throughout Supreme Beef's product.

Now, Spiritas thought, we are getting somewhere. Spiritas had been in the industry for three decades and was well known in industry circles. Spiritas was acquainted with Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and had no reason to doubt that the USDA would work with him to correct any problems. The system was new, and the USDA must have expected there to be some kinks. Armed with the plant-testing results showing that USDA-approved beef was the problem, Spiritas approached the USDA. "We had all that data and went to the USDA with it. We said, Look, the source of the salmonella is the meat we are buying from the other plants where you have inspectors," he says. "We should be able to rely that the meat is OK to be used in ground beef. We said, Why don't you have a standard on boneless beef? They wouldn't answer the question."
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