The owner of a Missoula meat business that was the subject of a public health alert this week said he was never issued a compliance violation, and the meat at his K&C Foods has never failed a lab test.
In its alert, the state said K&C Foods produced an “unknown quantity of beef, pork and poultry products” after its state inspection was suspended due to “insanitary conditions.” But no details of those conditions were provided.
K&C owner Jim Caplis, 89, said the state's assertion is "an outright lie.''
On Wednesday, officials with the state Department of Livestock, which suspended state inspections at K&C, declined to provide details about conditions at the meat firm.
Gary Hamel, the chief of meat and poultry inspection at the Department of Livestock, would not say whether Caplis was given notice of compliance violations or if his products had failed health inspection tests. Hamel’s supervisor, state veterinarian Dr. Martin Zaluski, also declined to comment on those issues, saying only that the press release was accurate.
The release said no cases of anyone becoming ill had been reported.
The Missoulian filed an open records request with the Department of Livestock on Wednesday asking for any records of compliance violation notices or failed food safety tests by K&C Foods. Zaluski said late Wednesday that the "materials need to be gathered from several sources" and go through an internal review before anything could be released, a process that could take days.
Caplis, who has run K&C for 60 years in Missoula, said the April suspension of his inspections, which he said effectively put him out of business, is an example of government overreach. He said inspectors had found no problems with his shop for decades, but that abruptly changed earlier this year.
A letter from Hamel to Caplis written earlier this month said that the inspections were suspended because Caplis' products “may have been contaminated with filth.”
“I’ve never failed a test,'' Caplis said Wednesday. "Never. Not once.
"All he’s going to do is ruin an old man’s reputation. Nobody’s ever got sick. He better have a sample that’s filthy.”
In a response sent last week to Hamel, Caplis said K&C has always been found in compliance by federal, state and local inspectors, until at the start of the year, when “you came with a laundry list of requirements that needed to be fixed or changed, that was so long and so onerous.”
Caplis pointed to various places in his building that inspectors had told him he needed to review. Rather than pay any attention to the machinery or tabletops, Caplis said the only interest by a new group of state inspectors seemed to be in things like the ceiling panels (he replaced them) or a rusted piece of unused railing in the corner (he painted it.)
He didn’t fix others. Caplis said after nearly six decades of inspectors having no problems with a hallway in the basement leading to his freezer room having exposed mortar and an exposed crossbeam ceiling (he only transports meat that is already boxed or wrapped in the area), he was told those needed to be covered, and the freezer room would have to be retrofitted or moved upstairs.
Caplis said the issue had never come up before. He said he was planning on retiring in a few months and that Hamel’s office refused to work with him on the issue. He thinks his standing up to the state over the matter is what led to them shutting him down.
A compliance officer should have come by after the suspension was issued but never showed up, Caplis said.
“You have been nonstop harassing me and disrespecting me in my place of business for months,” Caplis wrote to Hamel. “You are interfering with my right to do business and will not work with me even though I am actively trying to accomplish everything you asked for.”
Caplis closed his letter saying he was contemplating a lawsuit against the state, and told the Missoulian he’s not letting this go.
“I’m going to find out exactly how many rights I have as an American, tax-paying citizen.”
The public health alert said a recall was recommended by the Montana Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau, but that K&C Foods refused to voluntarily recall its products.
The alert listed ground beef, steaks and roasts, as well as various pork and poultry products produced since April 6 and sold to restaurants and individuals around the city as potentially affected. The alert also advised the meat be thrown away.
It said the affected products do have a state inspection mark on them, implying those products were made after the inspections were suspended.
On Tuesday, Hamel said the agency would go through a legal process to force Caplis to disclose to whom the meat was sold, then compliance officers would find it and tag it for eventual destruction.