By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Marianne Elbertson, public affairs specialist with the FSIS in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the USDA does not have a separate standard for boneless beef. "Is the boneless beef trim tested for anything? No, it is not," she said.
So the USDA approved the beef that was coming into Supreme Beef's back door but was rejecting the same product when it came out the front. It didn't make any sense.
"Ground beef is merely a derivative product of the trim...If salmonella is in the trim, it's for certain that it's going to be in ground beef," Spiritas says. "So why don't you develop a standard on the trim? I know the answer to that question. If they did it, they'd shut down the meat plants all over the country, because no one would be able to comply."
So Supreme Beef knew exactly what was causing the problem but didn't know what to do about it. It is not economically feasible to buy beef from a colder climate where salmonella levels are lower, Spiritas says. None of Supreme Beef's suppliers would agree to sell their USDA-approved beef trimmings on a pass/fail basis pending Supreme Beef's own salmonella test results. And the USDA was unmovable. The frustration was starting to build.
Spiritas says salmonella is simply more prevalent in beef raised in warmer climates. Nothing slaughterhouses in the South do is different from procedures anywhere else in the United States.
Despite the test failures, Supreme Beef's product was still being shipped out, because salmonella in ground beef doesn't automatically make it unfit for humans or prompt a recall. People are supposed to kill salmonella by proper cooking, the same way they'd kill pathogens in pork or chicken. "We never had a problem with any of our product," Spiritas says. "We still weren't having a problem with the product. We were having a problem with the standards."
The third and final batch of testing was approaching. Failure would mean that the USDA could withdraw its inspectors and close the company, at least until the problem was fixed. "If USDA does not furnish inspection, you are shut down. It's a federal crime. If you are a federally inspected meat plant, you cannot process," Spiritas says. "You cannot ship. You cannot operate without inspectors."
Spiritas says he needed the USDA to agree not to shut down Supreme Beef if it failed its third set of tests. Supreme Beef was desperately trying to figure out a way to meet the salmonella standard. If it failed, Supreme Beef would devise a corrective program to meet the demands of HACCP, just as 19 other Texas beef plants are doing right now. The USDA agreed to allow Supreme Beef to stay open if it failed its third round of tests.
And sure enough, the USDA notified Supreme Beef on October 19, 1999, that it had failed the third round. The agency had found six positives out of 37 samples. It was almost good enough, with five being a passing grade, but not quite. Still, the USDA lived up to its part of the agreement and let Supreme Beef stay open. It stopped testing. Supreme thought it was living up to its part of the agreement and continued trying to fix the problem. It exchanged letters with the USDA about corrective actions. Spiritas breathed a sigh of relief. He thought Supreme was back in the random pool for testing. He still couldn't figure out why Supreme Beef's tests on samples taken from the same batches pulled by the USDA inspector showed much lower salmonella levels, but by now he had lost faith in the USDA's laboratories. "We were waiting to hear back from them, and we're thinking we're going to get a letter saying they accept our plan and we go back into the random pool, and they're not going to test us for a while."
Spiritas' feeling of relief was mistaken. On November 29, 1999, Spiritas got news that floored him. The USDA notified him that inspectors were going to be withdrawn from his plant--the very next day. Spiritas called his lawyer.
"I didn't want to do any legal battles with the United States government. It's a no-brainer," he says. "No, you can't win a battle with the United States government."
Before Supreme Beef, it had taken a much greater offense than the presence of some salmonella for the USDA to take the drastic step of withdrawing its inspectors, which effectively shuts down any meat plant. For instance, records show that in 1999 other meat producers lost the right to USDA inspection for trying to bribe an inspector, for "causing meat and poultry products to become adulterated by rodents" and then distributing them, for "selling and transporting adulterated meat food products with intent to defraud," and for allowing uninspected cattle to be slaughtered, among other offenses.
A federal court granted Supreme Beef a temporary injunction, which kept inspectors on the job at least until a hearing could be held.
Spiritas says that he tried to continue working with the government, but that every time he thought he was close to an agreement, the USDA would back out.