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Cutting Steaks

Bart Riley cuts beef tenderloin fillets at Riley Meats.

Montanans learned about alleged mistreatment of the state’s small meat processors by U.S. Department of Agriculture food inspectors months ago. The department has had more than enough time to investigate, make corrections and issue its findings to the public.

This hasn’t happened. Instead, those at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service appear to be waiting for the trouble to quietly fade away.

Montanans can’t allow that to happen — not so long as those at the source of the problem remain in positions of power over the very businesses whose owners made the complaints in the first place. It’s time to ramp up the pressure.

The push to force the FSIS to cooperate with an independent investigation and public disclosure of the investigation’s results got a major boost last December, when all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation signed a letter to USDA Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong expressing frustration with the department’s internal-only review and general lack of transparency.

A state legislative committee followed up last week with its own call for an independent review, voting to send a letter noting that "The public has a right to know how FSIS regulations are being implemented by both federal and state inspectors and whether these inspections are being done uniformly” and adding a request for a formal apology from FSIS to anyone wronged by its agents’ actions.

Montana has some 20 federally inspected meat processing plants and about twice as many state-inspected facilities, including a handful located in Missoula and western Montana. For these businesses to serve their customers to the best of their ability, state and federal inspectors must do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Yet according to some of these small-business owners, FSIS fell far short of that duty when it allowed one of its head inspectors in particular to coerce certain meat processors into purchasing unnecessary equipment and making other changes not actually required by federal law. These inspectors, remember, have the power to shut down facilities they find in violation of safety regulations.

Montana meat processors lost time and money trying to comply with these pointless orders. Those that pushed back and dared to complain about the treatment they say they experienced under front-line supervisor Dr. Jeffrey Legg felt they did so at the risk of retaliation against their businesses.

Bart Riley of Riley Meats in Butte is among those who contested the citations his facility received. He says his business became a target and was cited for violations of federal regulations that don’t exist.

Before 2005, Riley Meats, which had been in business for decades, didn’t have any problems with the inspection process. Then, Riley was told to make a number of changes, from replacing wood pallets with plastic ones and replacing metal walls with glass board to repairing a basement floor not used for meat processing and building an office. Riley says he spent $10,000 trying to comply with these “requirements” before he discovered they were unnecessary. He appealed the citations, many of which were eventually overturned, and started filing complaints of his own — against Legg.

Then, his business started accumulating non-compliance notices from inspectors. He was also told to provide certification for dubious issues, such as proof that his facility uses drinkable water. Of course it does — and in fact has been connected to the city water system for many years.

Some of Riley’s complaints were acknowledged but others weren’t. Meanwhile, other meat processors and inspectors went on record with reports of similar problems.

In 2008 — 10 years ago! — FSIS found at least some of these complaints substantiated, and then dropped the matter. As far as anyone outside the agency knows, no disciplinary action was ever taken, and no changes were ever made.

Thankfully, a series of news stories in the Montana Standard last September helped expose the situation, and U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, wasted no time using their political clout to urge action.

That months have passed without response from the FSIS shows further action is needed. The USDA owes it to Montanans, and especially to our meat processing businesses, to provide information about any misconduct it has discovered and what steps it is taking to ensure Montana’s small business owners won’t continue to be mistreated.

Harassment and vindictive behavior by any government agency against any individual or business, in Montana or elsewhere, cannot be tolerated. Complaints of such behavior must be taken seriously and looked into right away, and corrective action must be taken and publically announced to restore the public confidence in the institutions that act in our name.

Those in positions of authority who continue to demonstrate a pattern of harassment and retaliation should not be allowed to stay on the job. They should not retain the official authority to carry out personal vendettas against the people who brought their misconduct to light.

At this point, an outside review is absolutely warranted. That investigation should follow up on all allegations by small meat processors during Legg’s term of employment.

And a letter of apology from FSIS officials certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea. While it won’t make up for the anxiety, inconvenience and lost money suffered by folks like Riley, an apology would at least demonstrate the department’s understanding that these individuals have been wronged.

The FSIS owes them a detailed response to their complaints — and a promise that they won’t be wronged again.

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