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Koster's targets: errant butchers and campaign benefactors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2011 - Beef heart may be fine by itself, but it's illegal to sell it as hamburger. Ditto for soy material sold as meat sausage.

Such was Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster's message today, as he announced that his office was filing suit against John's Butcher Shoppee, a meat processor with shops in Overland and Festus.

Acting on an anonymous tip, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted 16 tests on meat and sausage samples from the shops, and determined that beef heart muscles had been a primary ingredient in some of the hamburger and sausage sampled, and that some sausage also contained soy.

The samples spanned a six month period, ending in March.

The substitutions are not a health risk, Koster said, but constitute illegal practices. Among other things, federal standards bar animal organs from hamburger.

"Consumers should be able to trust that the products they buy are what the manufacturer has advertised,'' he said during a news conference in his St. Louis office. "In no area is this more important than in the food Missourians feed their families."

The attorney general's office plans to file suit this afternoon in Jefferson County, and will ask a judge to issue an immediate order barring the shops from selling such items, Koster said.

John's Butcher Shoppee Inc. is owned and operated by two brothers, Michael and Thomas Kolish, who are named in the suit. They were unavailable for comment, said a person answering the phone at the Festus operation.

Beth Ewers, deputy director of meat and poultry inspections for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said it had been years since the state had run across such a case, and been forced to prosecute.

"Ten to 20 years ago, it was more common," Ewers said. She added that she suspected that "economic pressures'' prompted some meat processors to skirt the law.

The attorney general's office is asking customers of John's Butcher Shoppee to call 1-800-392-8222 if they have any information about the errant products.

Collects Hefty Campaign Checks in New York

Koster, meanwhile, is off to Chicago for a meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General, a spokeswoman said.

The attorney general has been traveling a lot lately, at times meshing his political goals -- raising campaign money -- with his professional targets.

Later this week, Koster is slated to be featured in a segment on NBC's Today Show -- talking about US Fidelis, a now-defunct firm that sold auto repair coverage. The attorney general's office earlier this month announced 14 indictments against the firm.

The taping of the Today Show segment took place while Koster was in New York last week for two days of politicking, including two fund-raising events that garnered him close to $50,000, according to filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission. The largest check appears to be $25,000from the New York firm of Labaton Sucharow LLP.

Koster said through a spokeswoman that he was pleased with the money he collected from the events.

Meanwhile, he said during today's news conference that he hasn't gotten much political fallout from his decision this April to file a friend-of-the-court briefthat challenges the legality of the federal mandate that most Americans purchase health insurance by 2014.

Koster said that many legal scholars and attorneys general are questioning whether such a mandate is within the jurisdiction of the federal Constitution's so-called "commerce clause."

But he emphasized that his brief does not challenge many other parts of the federal health care law, passed in March 2010. Koster said he recommended that state officials in Missouri continue to proceed with preparations to carry out parts of the law that have yet to go into effect.

Koster predicted by the U.S. Supreme Court will likely rule by June 30, 2012 on the law. He emphasized that the justices may overturn only parts of it, and allow the rest of the health care changes to stand.

Sort of the judicial version of making sausage or hamburger -- and determining what's legal to include, and what is not.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.