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Articles: Food Production

A meat inspector's story

Former USDA inspector Patsy McKee says she lost her job because she was too good at it. She claims that meat-processing plant owners who were unhappy with her thorough enforcement of food-safety regulations pressured the USDA into firing her. The agency and the plant owners say that she was dismissed for inappropriate and unprofessional behavior. Her story is one of the many from disgruntled inspectors who have come forward since the inception of the new regulatory system that gave meatpacking plants more responsibility to regulate themselves. Here's a Web-exclusive report on McKee's battle with the industry and the USDA.

For 13 years, meat and poultry inspector Patricia McKee received top performance ratings with the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in southern California. When a new supervisor arrived in 1998, though, her ratings fell amid complaints from a handful of plant owners that she was too strict. Two years later, she was fired.

McKee's story is emblematic of a growing controversy about the government's handling of its radically redesigned inspection program, called HACCP, which was implemented over three years, starting in 1998. (A precursor sanitation program began in 1997.) With HACCP, which stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, although the government is still ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of the nation's meat, poultry, and fresh eggs, as represented by the USDA brand, much of that responsibility shifted to the industry. McKee and other critics claim that the government's eagerness to "let HACCP work," in the words of its in-house slogan, has meant harassment and retaliation at the hands of their own management. Inspection agency data received through the Freedom of Information Act shows that all disciplinary actions, including terminations, resignations, and retirements have nearly doubled since 1997. Critics say the treatment has undermined the agency's integrity and demoralized its 7,600 member workforce.

Hazelkorn is a freelance reporter whose previous reporting on the meat industry appeared in The New York Times.

"They hated me because I was documenting these plants' failures," says McKee. "The Agency just wants good news." But McKee insists that the plants were dirty, pointing to her and other inspectors' documentation of recurring sanitation and production violations in the plants. "The difference was they'd always been able to get off with verbal correctives, which are useless if they keep making the same mistakes." The inspection records, called process deficiency or noncompliance reports (PDRs and NRs), show a pattern of violations in the four plants whose owners complained about McKee. Many of the violations were critical enough, in the inspectors' judgement, to make consumers ill.

Since the implementation of HACCP, dozens of previously top-rated inspectors, veterinarians, and even district managers -- the highest-ranking supervisors outside of Washington -- have been threatened, disciplined and/or fired. "It is amazing how many people are running scared of FSIS [the Food Safety Inspection Service of the USDA]," wrote Dr. Dale Boyle, the executive director of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, in a recent email to agency officials. The situation has led to unprecedented actions from USDA top officials; the Bush Administration's Under Secretary for Food Safety, Elsa Murano, convened a "listening meeting" with disgruntled USDA employees in Fayetteville, Ark.

HACCP was the government's answer to the devastating Jack in the Box epidemic of 1993, when at least four children died and more than 700 people fell ill after eating hamburgers tainted with a newly mutated bacterial strain called E. coli O157:H7. Consumer safety groups endorsed HACCP, but the industry hated it. It objected to mandatory testing for generic E. coli and Salmonella. Industry trade associations sued FSIS and then-Administrator Michael Taylor. "The principle here is that the beef industry is fighting for standards that improve the wholesomeness of the product," says Patrick Boyle of the American Meat Institute, the meat industry's most powerful lobbying organization. "The industry has reservations about unscientific standards that have no relation to the safety of the product." As exemplified by the Supreme Beef v. USDA case in Texas, the industry position is that salmonella standards are unscientific, arbitrary and not representative of possible unsanitary conditions in meat processing plants. Furthermore, they argue, as long as meat is cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, or well-done, the bacterial risk is moot.

While industry objected to further federal regulations, they were also lobbying USDA management to pressure inspectors perceived as too agressive. The case of Patricia McKee can be told in detail because of a substantial number of documents obtained by FRONTLINE. Although the four plant owners objected to her tough regulation of their plants, technically McKee was fired because of her behavior. "Even though your description of the actions of the plants may be valid in a number of cases," Associate Deputy Administrator for Field Operations John McCutcheon wrote to McKee, "you must bear the primary responsibility for the fact that the relationships with four of your assigned plants are irredeemably broken." In April 2000, McCutcheon transferred McKee to a night shift position 2,000 miles away in a processing plant in Cherokee, Iowa. McKee refused the assignment and was fired.

"Inspector McKee was by far the worst inspector I encountered in my 50 years in this industry," says Fred Hunter, the former owner of Global Food Management Corp., a burrito plant in Colton, Calif., east of Los Angeles. Hunter wrote several letters of complaint to McKee's boss, Dr. Murli Prasad, manager for the Alameda (Calif.) District. In one letter, written in April 1999, Hunter describes a meeting held that January between himself, McKee, and two compliance officers, so-called "meat cops" who investigate repeated and/or serious violations of law and regulations. McKee had become so unhinged, he said, that the officers threw her out and sent her home. In his next letter to Dr. Prasad two months later, Hunter wrote that McKee had "called me a 'fucking' liar."

Other plant operators also testified about McKee's difficult personality, including Frank Craig, of Frank's Wholesale Meats, in San Bernadino, whom the government had sanctioned for allegedly threatening another inspector one month prior to the hearing.

Other plants had no trouble with her. "I heard the horror stories about Patsy McKee," says Tom Serrato of Far West Meats, in Highland, Calif. "Personally, I have nothing but good things to say about her. I found her very easy to work with. She seemed to do what was best for the product and the public." Another plant owner, Rick Ankrum, of Modern Meats Inc. in San Bernadino, wrote a letter on her behalf: "If I had to summarize Inspector McKee's performance as a USDA inspector, I would say she was professional, knowledgeable, and courteous. She never demonstrated inappropriate behavior and always treated plant employees and management with respect."

Meanwhile, another of the four complaining owners, Mark Zimmerman of Morgan Meat Co. in Barstow, Calif., enlisted the aid of the National Meat Association (NMA), whose director, Rosemary Mucklow, has been a well-respected industry partisan for 40 years. Until recently, she was a member of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Advisory Committee. Mucklow quickly fired off letters to Congressman Jerry Lewis, of Redlands, Calif., and to McKee's bosses, Dr. Prasad and McCutcheon. To the congressman, Mucklow emphasized her membership on the advisory committee and her years of experience. She also mentioned a speech she intended to give the following month before the Small Business Administration's Fairness Board in Omaha. The various regional boards, comprised of small businessmen, hear regulatory problems from other small businessmen and facilitate their cases with the appropriate agencies. She urged all of the recipients -- Lewis, Prasad, and McCutcheon -- to immediately remove Patricia McKee from Zimmerman's plant. Within a month, McKee was sent for retraining, not at a meat and poultry plant, but in an egg plant.

In her speech to the Fairness Board, Mucklow summarized Zimmerman's complaints: McKee spoke "in a loud manner," using "unprofessional, demeaning, and abusive language"; she imposed improper time limitations for responses to her PDRs or citations, "with the intent to confuse and pressure the company"; and she had stopped production after finding "a minute speck" on the needle of a tenderizing machine. "We guard our reputation as advisors to the industry very cautiously," Mucklow said, "and we immediately require to see the documentation."

However, significant discrepancies between Mucklow's version of events, McKee's contemporary reports, and plant employees' testimonies suggest that Mucklow's account of the history reflects only Zimmerman's version of events. Aside from the he said/she said between the two of them, PDRs, letters, and scores of interviews did not bear out the charges. Patricia McKee's time limit of three days for responses to PDRs was supported by her supervisor and the FSIS directive. The "minute speck" was, according to the PDR, actually "several small pieces" of old meat residues. Given the extreme toxicity of the new "superbugs," where less than five E. coli bacteria can kill a child, guidelines call for inspectors to tag "anything that you can see."

"Mucklow's statements make one wonder if she did fully investigate the incidents involving this inspector, or did she misconstrue the facts to fit the mission of NMA?" says Eleanor Halverstadt, the former assistant district manager for enforcement in California. Mucklow refused to discuss whether or how much she had, in fact, investigated the validity of Zimmerman's complaints or McKee's citations. Zimmerman would not speak for the record. While Mucklow did not identify McKee by name in the speech, she sent copies of it to meat plants throughout the Riverside circuit where McKee worked.

Nor will Mucklow discuss her involvement in the sanctioning or transfers of other inspectors who provoked her members' ire. Just two months before demanding Patricia McKee's removal in April 1999, she had demanded that Dr. Prasad remove McKee's husband, Robert McKee, from his circuit supervisor post in Los Angeles.

But McKee fought back. She produced a letter from another compliance officer, Stanley Kay, now an industry consultant, who said he recalled the meeting with Hunter, of Global Food, but not the yelling or swearing. "At no time during that day or during our meeting did I hear Inspector McKee swear, use foul language, or curse at anyone," he wrote. Moreover, "I have previously worked with Inspector McKee at several other establishments and have never observed her behave in an unprofessional manner."

McKee sued Hunter for libel and slander, and this February she was awarded $739,000 plus attorney fees after he failed to respond. While stillemployed by the USDA, Mckee had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for job discrimination and harassment. Last year, she received a settlement from the USDA--she is not allowed to disclose the exact amount--when a judge ruled that the agency had failed to investigate her complaints.

In April, 2002, McKee filed suit in U.S. District Court, appealing her termination on grounds of gender discrimination and whistleblower retaliation.

Last August, Global Food was ordered to recall product that had tested positive for Listeria, a lethal bacteria that has been responsible for up to 500 meat-related deaths a year in cases across the United States. Listeria had been one of the contaminants that concerned McKee.

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