By Jim Schutze
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Steven Spiritas, chief executive officer of Supreme Beef, still works in the office above what just two years ago was his family's thriving ground-beef plant in Fair Park. The plant below him is darkened, with most beef-grinding and other equipment sold as part of a bankruptcy.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture put Supreme Beef, one of the South's largest ground-beef producers, out of business to prove it had authority to enforce a new, science-based way of testing meat for harmful microorganisms, Spiritas maintains. He took the government to court, seeking to show that his plant was clean, that he was improperly targeted and that his product was of the highest quality.
Earlier this month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed with Spiritas and with a ruling from a lower federal court. The USDA had no authority to remove its Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors and close Supreme Beef, and the USDA was not logically applying its new science-based standard to Supreme Beef, the court ruled. Out of business with a tainted reputation, the ruling is a victory Spiritas fully expected, but he called it "bittersweet."
"Sadly, our case is a perfect example of government at its worst. A great family business, which I loved, and its economic value was intentionally destroyed by some USDA zealots. Thousands of families were adversely affected, and USDA lost its treasured standard," he says. "The agency knew they didn't have the authority to do this."
Essentially, the Clinton-backed standard calls for the testing of samples of ground beef for salmonella as a scientific way to learn if a meat grinder is producing meat that is free from harmful bacteria. Supporters hailed the standard as a huge improvement to the outdated "poke and sniff" beef inspection process.
Backers said the new tests provided an indicator of the quality of the product and of the cleanliness of a plant where meat is produced. If a plant produced a series of failing batches of beef containing unacceptable levels of salmonella, then the USDA said it would remove its inspectors and shut down an operation. That's what it tried to do to Supreme Beef in what would be the federal agency's first test of its authority to enforce the salmonella standard.
At the time, Supreme Beef was a 400-employee company that shipped 500,000 pounds of ground beef daily to the federal government and to retailers such as Albertson's, Wal-Mart and Tom Thumb. A December 21, 2000, Dallas Observer cover story, "Slaughterhouse Jive," described how Supreme Beef's decision to fight the new salmonella-testing standard eventually forced the company into bankruptcy.
Spiritas and industry insiders said all along that the USDA's microbial testing standard produced results that were misleading. They said that using the presence of salmonella in ground beef to measure plant cleanliness or to indicate the likely presence of harmful bacteria like E. coli was illogical and outside the federal agency's legal authority. The USDA is authorized to remove inspectors from a plant if they find conditions that make meat adulterated or unfit for human consumption.
For one thing, Spiritas and others said, salmonella is naturally occurring and is not considered an adulterant to meat the way E. coli is. Just because a sample of beef contains salmonella, it does not automatically follow that the beef also contains E. coli or other potentially harmful bacteria. What's more, they argued, it is well-known that salmonella is common to poultry products, and those products are still considered edible and sold with USDA approval. Consumers are advised to cook poultry properly to ensure salmonella is killed. The court agreed.
"The presence of salmonella in meat products does not render them 'injurious to health,'" the ruling said in part. "Salmonella-infected beef is thus routinely labeled 'inspected and passed' by USDA inspectors and is legal to sell to the consumer."
On top of all that, by all indications, Supreme Beef's plant and its grinding operations were clean and largely free of salmonella, even the USDA agreed. The salmonella that got Supreme Beef into trouble was in the USDA-approved meat that Spiritas was buying to make ground beef. Spiritas said it made no sense that the USDA approved the product when it arrived at his back door and then blamed him for the salmonella in the same product that was going out the front door. The court appeared to agree with that, too.
"Supreme has, at all points in this litigation, argued that it failed the performance standard not because of any condition of its facility but because it purchased beef 'trimmings' that had higher levels of salmonella than other cuts of meat," the ruling says. "The USDA has not disputed this argument and has merely argued that this explanation does not exonerate Supreme...The [testing standard] fails, but not because it measures salmonella levels and salmonella is a non-adulterant. The performance standard is invalid because it regulates the procurement of raw materials."
From the start of Supreme Beef's court victories, the national press and consumer groups seized upon the rulings to question the intelligence of the federal judges. U.S. District Court Judge A. Joe Fish was harshly criticized for ruling that the USDA had no authority from Congress to use their new standard as a reason to withdraw its inspectors.
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.
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."