Sour Victory

Supreme Beef wins in federal appeals court, but not soon enough to save its plant

Syndicated columnist Marianne Means wrote, "That judicial nitwit held that a meat-processing plant showing unacceptably high levels of contamination with salmonella bacteria could not be closed down by federal inspectors. If little kids get sick from eating diseased hamburgers, that's not the industry's fault, U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish in effect concluded."

After this latest ruling, The Washington Post quoted USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison as saying the USDA has "no more ability to shut a plant down," which is untrue. The ruling had no impact on the USDA's authority to withdraw inspectors from plants found to be selling products adulterated with rat meat or E. coli or anything else considered harmful. Harrison says the quote was "taken out of context."

"You can still withdraw inspectors and suspend inspection for a host of other reasons," she says.

Steven Spiritas was vindicated by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court.
Mark Graham
Steven Spiritas was vindicated by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court.

Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the California-based National Meat Association, which was allowed to join Supreme Beef's court fight, says she sees the ruling as an opportunity to revisit the science-based testing standard and to find an appropriate way of reducing undesirable microorganisms. She's tried to get consumer groups interested in talking, but "they won't budge," she says.

"And they are wrong, absolutely wrong, because it's now an opportunity to find the most effective, scientific-based methods in order to improve the safety of meat," she says. "We're only going to get there by rational, reasonable people sitting down together and talking together."

Spiritas says he is not sure where he will take his family's business from here.

"This case should have never occurred. This issue should have been worked out by the government. We had several agreements, which they withdrew. It was completely mishandled, in my opinion, by upper FSIS management officials, including the secretary's office," he says. "It was well-known that salmonella was not anything that we were creating or causing at this plant."

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