"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
"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
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 still employed 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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