Right and Wronged

The taste of victory is bittersweet for a local meatpacker who challenged the USDA

It won't help Steven Spiritas resurrect his once-thriving ground-beef company, but it seems his costly court battle with the U.S. Department of Agriculture has forced the agency to change the way it conducts meat inspections, he says.

"I am pleased that the USDA finally got rational with their new proposed salmonella policy, but it's more than a shame that it took the life of our company and a lengthy and expensive whipping at the courthouse to get it done," he says.

The USDA announced recently that from now on when a meat-grinding plant fails a series of tests for salmonella, the source of the meat will be tested for salmonella as well. It seems to be a sensible approach, but it's one that the agency ignored while it was running Supreme Beef out of business.

Steven Spiritas' fight with the USDA won a change in government policy--one that came too late to save his meatpacking business.
Mark Graham
Steven Spiritas' fight with the USDA won a change in government policy--one that came too late to save his meatpacking business.

About two years ago, the agency used Spiritas and Dallas-based Supreme Beef to prove it had authority to close meat plants that failed its new salmonella-testing standard. The standard uses the presence of salmonella as an indicator of poor safety practices and potentially deadly pathogens such as E. coli. Supreme Beef failed a series of salmonella tests, so the federal government pulled its inspectors, effectively closing the plant. Spiritas sued, contending that the government is supposed to pull inspectors only if a plant is dirty or producing meat that is unfit for human consumption.

Federal judges who heard the case agreed. They ruled that no one ever gave the USDA authority to pull its inspectors based on failures of tests for salmonella, a bacteria that is not considered an adulterant. After failing the salmonella tests the first time, Spiritas paid scientists to conduct tests and find the source of salmonella at his plant. What he found was that while his plant was clean and free of bacteria, the USDA-approved meat he was buying was not. It contained salmonella. He pleaded with the USDA to recognize that the salmonella contamination came from outside his plant, but the agency ignored him, he says.

Not anymore. The agency's recent announcement means that if a plant failed a series of salmonella tests like Supreme Beef did, then the source of the meat would be included in a subsequent investigation. It's a major change that means federal meat inspectors will look for a source of contamination instead of putting the onus on grinders to force stricter standards onto suppliers. It's also a change that would have allowed Spiritas to stay in business, he says.

"The USDA is now doing what they ought to be doing...There is nothing wrong with testing. There is nothing wrong with examining for pathogens and salmonella. But if a firm is doing everything that they can be doing and they fail what they deem their standard to be, then they need to go look at the source, which is the boneless beef coming in," Spiritas says. "That's where they've got to go find the problem."

Before getting caught up in the fight with the government, Supreme Beef employed 400 and shipped 500,000 pounds of ground beef daily 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.

Supporters maintain that the standard is a scientific way to learn if a meat grinder is producing meat that is free from harmful bacteria and a vast improvement over the outdated "poke and sniff" standard.

Throughout his nearly two-year court fight, Spiritas and others in the meat industry maintained that the new testing standard was not an accurate indicator of the cleanliness of meat such as ground beef or of a meat plant's sanitary conditions. 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 not based on sound science and that enforcement through plant closure was outside the federal agency's legal authority.

"So long as the producing grinding plant is not a contributing factor, all of our results and test results proved and the government knew that we were not a contributing factor. They knew that we were buying meat with salmonella in it that was coming from other federal establishments, yet they wouldn't even consider going to those plants," Spiritas says. "They were holding us accountable to comply with the requirement when there was very little we could do other than quit buying meat. That's all we could do."

The USDA is authorized to remove inspectors from a plant if they find conditions that make meat adulterated or unfit for human consumption. Poultry, egg and meat producers are always trying to reduce contamination by naturally occurring salmonella, but salmonella-tainted products are routinely sold to the public with the government's OK. That's because the products are supposed to be handled properly and cooked to a temperature that will kill salmonella, officials say.

In the aftermath of Supreme Beef's lawsuit, the government has had to make changes, says Jeremy Russell, director of communications for the National Meat Association, which weighed in with Supreme Beef in its legal fight.

"The results of the lawsuit mean they don't have a choice of sticking with what they had created at first. They had to do some revisions, and there's been a change; there's new people there who are more interested in looking at the science, and that, I think, goes a long way."

Besides losing his company, Spiritas says his court fight has repeatedly been distorted by the national media. National reports in the print and broadcast media have made it appear that Supreme Beef was uncooperative and in favor of weakened safety standards. Spiritas says he's done all he can to get his side of the story publicized.

"I don't know why the media has not shown interest. We have responded to The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune that we would be happy to visit with them on our nickel, that I would come up there and sit down," he says. "They never responded."

Russell says his organization, too, has had little success getting the industry's case into print, particularly in relation to the federal government's ability to close down dirty meat plants, something not affected by Supreme Beef rulings.

"The media, they don't really seem to understand what's going on. They don't understand the lawsuit. Often they claim that it means there is no more salmonella enforcement ever, which, of course, is not what the lawsuit says at all, not what the judge's decision was," Russell says. "They are very much captured by the rhetoric of consumer activists, and that rhetoric has been extreme and unrealistic--hyperbole rather than analysis."

Spiritas says he's probably out of the meat business for good and is pursuing real estate development. He might not be done battling the federal government, though, he says.

"The Chapter 7 trustee is exploring the possibility of suing," he says.

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