Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nebraska Meats Sickens Virginia Boy Scouts; Tainted Meat Kills Minnesota Churchgoer

Nebraska Meats, the processor whose E coli tainted beef sickened Boy Scouts in Goshen, VA a few weeks ago, apparently has a history of health and safety violations, according to this article in today's Washington Post. Sadly, their ground beef was sold through a supplier, Coleman Foods, which processed their product at Nebraska Meats, without informing Whole Foods. That supermarket chain is now investigating why Coleman Foods never told them where they processed the meat. Meanwhile, Whole Foods, a grocery chain that enjoys customer trust and maintains high standards, has had to issue a recall and will now have the difficult job of rebuilding their customers’ faith in their quality.

Nebraska Foods, by contrast, has a long history of health and safety violations, which should earn them customer enmity. And those same consumers, also voters, need to ask why the USDA has fallen on the job of protecting them?

It turns out, it didn’t happen without a fight from the USDA.
Nebraska Beef has a contentious history with the USDA. Over the past six years, federal meat inspectors have repeatedly written it up for sanitation violations, and the company has fought back in court.

From September 2002 to February 2003, USDA shut down the plant three times for problems such as feces on carcasses, water dripping off pipes onto meat, paint peeling onto equipment and plugged-up meat wash sinks, according to agency records.
After the third suspension, Nebraska Beef took USDA to court, arguing that another shutdown would put the company out of business. A judge agreed and temporarily blocked the department. The USDA and the company then settled out of court and inspections resumed. However, when federal meat inspectors found more violations, Nebraska Beef sued the department and the inspectors individually, accusing them of bias. The suit was later dismissed.

In 2004 and early 2005, Nebraska Beef ran afoul of new regulations aimed at keeping animal parts that may be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, out of the meat supply. Meat processors are required to remove certain high-risk parts, such as brains and spinal cords. Between July 2004 and February 2005, federal meat inspectors wrote up Nebraska Beef at least five times for not removing spinal cords and heads, according to USDA records obtained by Food and Water Watch, a Washington advocacy group.

The company corrected the problems.

In August 2006, federal meat inspectors threatened to suspend operations at the packing house for not following requirements for controlling E. coli. The company corrected the problem a week later, USDA records show.

But that same year, Minnesota health officials blamed the same company for sickening 17 people, who ate meatballs at a church potluck. One woman died of food poisoning and several of the victims sued Nebraska Beef, including the dead woman’s family. What was Nebraska Beef’s response? Incredibly, they counter sued the victims, alleging the volunteer chefs cooked the meatballs improperly. The suit was later dropped as consumer advocates questioned the company and why the USDA has been so ineffective at shutting it down.
Given the history of violations, some consumer advocates question why the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service has not come down harder on the company.

"It seems that FSIS is walking on eggshells when dealing with Nebraska Beef," said Food and Water Watch lobbyist Tony Corbo. "Instead, the agency keeps on coming up with Band-Aid approaches . . . while consumers keep on getting sick from eating products put into commerce by this company."

"Companies are provided the opportunity to take corrective action," USDA's Reiser said.
It took an accumulation of embarrassments, though, to get this delinquent company to sing a different tune. In addition to blatant disregard for their customers’ health, they also could care less about employee safety and are high on the list of union busters.
Labor unions have also criticized Nebraska Beef over its labor practices. Since 1998, the company has had 47 workplace safety violations and paid more than $100,000 in fines, Occupational Safety and Health Administration records show. Lamson said most were not serious.

In 2002, a National Labor Relations Board official voided a 2001 vote against unionizing Nebraska Beef employees. The NLRB official found that management interrogated workers about their union sympathies and threatened to fire, terminate benefits for or reassign employees who voted to unionize.
Maybe in addition to cleaning up safety violations to protect consumers, we also need the Employee Free Choice Act. It turns out, despite the claims to the contrary by conservatives, that workers need more protection from employer intimidation than they do from imaginary union thugs, who exist mostly in the minds of right wingers for whom private industry can do no wrong.

Nebraska Meats is a terrible example of a company that threatens its employees and plays fast and loose with everybody’s safety and health. And the state government in Nebraska has given them tax breaks to do so.
By then, Hughes was already part of a group of Nebraska Beef investors. The state gave the company additional financial support in the form of $7.5 million in tax credits under its Quality Jobs Act. Then-Gov. Ben Nelson (D), now a U.S. senator, sat on the three-member jobs board that approved the tax credits. Nelson's former law firm, Lamson, Dugan and Murray, represents Nebraska Beef.

While state leaders welcomed Nebraska Beef and the jobs that came with it, residents who lived near the plant did not, and for more than a decade, they battled the company over manure strewn in the street and workers walking off the kill floor and into the local grocery store covered in cow splatter, said South Omaha resident Janet Bonet.
So, in addition to all their other sins, they’re bad neighbors too. But bad neighbors with friends, like Blue Dog Democrat Ben Nelson, in high places. And they are serial polluters and health and safety violators too.
The force behind Nebraska Beef is Nebraska businessman William Hughes. Hughes was a top executive at the now-defunct Beef America. In 1997, the USDA yanked its inspectors from BeefAmerica's Norfolk, Neb., plant because of repeated sanitation violations, including contamination of meat with fecal matter. The company had to recall more than 600,000 pounds of beef after the USDA traced E. coli O157:H7-tainted meat from a Virginia retailer to the Omaha packer. It filed for bankruptcy the following year.
So, William Hughes, buddy of Ben Nelson, has poisoned Virginians before. I guess all politics isn’t just local. Not in a global economy.

As I’ve written before, most companies genuinely try to provide quality products. They need help in regaining the public’s trust. But there are a few out there that are genuinely criminal. Those are the ones that should be eliminated. I can’t think of a better outcome for the health and safety of the public than for Nebraska Meats to either shape up or, indeed, fold up.

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