Montana investigates fed meat inspection system, meanwhile one is honored by FSIS | TSLN.com

Montana investigates fed meat inspection system, meanwhile one is honored by FSIS

Shauna Kopren
for Tri-State Livestock News
Image courtesy Wikiwand

The Montana state legislature last spring approved a study that will look into regulation of the state’s meatpackers and make recommendations on the state and federal inspection systems.

The bill was inspired, in part, by alleged mistreatment of small meatpackers around the area by federal inspectors, specifically Dr. Jeffrey Legg.

Concern over alleged misconduct, issuance of “Noncompliance Record” violations that ordered small meatpackers to make expensive updates not required by law, and more has been ongoing for at least 13 years. In November of 2017, Tri State Livestock News published a feature describing some of the alleged harassment and retaliatory behavior, and the state’s three congressmen’s united front in requesting a look into the investigators themelves, including Dr. Legg.

So when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safetey Inspection Service or FSIS honored Legg this summer, it riled a few feathers.

For plant owners like Riley, news of Legg’s award was frustrating. “I’m tired of it,” Riley states. “It has been good these last couple of years because they have stopped harassing us but that doesn’t resolve anything. My biggest worry is that as soon as somebody quits writing about this, it is going to start again.”

Carmen Rottenberg, who was the FSIS administrator asked to investigate Legg and the entire department in 2017, presented Legg, and the other recipients, with plaques recognizing them for “continued outstanding leadership in a geographically large circuit and remarkable efforts to build an effective regulatory team to better protect public health.”

In June 2019 Riley attended a small plant owner meeting with the USDA FSIS in Denver. He had been invited and had wanted to tell his story and experiences with federal government staff but Riley felt that he was not received warmly. “I have never received any apology from anyone at the USDA,” Riley states. “No one has ever come and told me they are sorry for what has happened to us and all the other small Montana plants. They just continue to hide behind everything and lie for each other. I want people to know that this has not been resolved.”

2019-2020 Montana Study

Input from local meatpackers, custom butchers, consumers, meat inspectors, public health officials, and others affected by meat inspection laws is to be considered in the state’s study, and all laws and regulations are to be reviewed, with a report due to the state legislature during the spring session of 2021.

During the 2019 Montana Legislative session, Riley also testified for a study bill that legislator Theresa Manzella from Hamilton, Montana, introduced. “I brought the study bill forward partially because of Bart Riley’s situation but specifically because of a situation that involved a custom exempt meat processor in my community here in Hamilton,” explains Manzella. “My goal with the study bill was to determine whether or not state and federal inspectors are in accordance with our state laws and if not then to bring them to compliance and find a way that state laws and federal regulations reconcile comfortably without government overreach.”

Manzella became concerned when she started to research Montana laws on the subject and recognized what she considered to be conflicts between the custom exempt meat processors status and the standards of inspection for the local meat processors. What Manzella specifically wanted to know was why was the custom exempt small state meat processor being inspected as if they were big commercial meat processors.

“The study bill was well received and passed almost unanimously and the reason was because the federal regulations are just that; federal regulations,” explains Manzella. “They are not superior to our state law and that’s what I wanted to clarify.”

“The Montana meat inspection program’s mission is to make sure the public has safe food for consumption,” explains Gary Hamel, Montana Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Bureau Chief. “We are the front line of defense and it is our job to make sure that the general public is not exposed to meat that has pathogens and could be potentially harmful.”

Hamel goes on to explain that they want to educate before they regulate and to give ample opportunity, time and education for businesses to come into compliance using methods like corrective action plans.

The study bill has an economic component that will look at the economic contribution of the Montana meat processors and the value of their work and products. The study bill will be completed by the next Montana Legislative session in January 2021.

2017 Congressional request for investigation

“My constituents have described a series of wanton abuses from this out-of-control bureaucrat,” wrote Gianforte in 2017. “These family businesses have filed numerous complaints with FSIS after Dr. Legg imposed on them outrageous compliance costs for regulations that do not exist. When confronted about his enforcement of self-created regulations, Legg retaliated against them.”

Dr. Jeffrey Legg was accused of abusing his power and targeting small meat packers across Montana beginning in 2005.

Bart Riley, owner of Riley’s Meats, a small meat processing plant located in Butte Montana, was one of a number of processing plants that filed complaints about Legg’s compliance requests throughout the years. According to Riley these requests and costs were often for regulations that did not exist and complaints that were made, were often met with resistance and retaliation from Legg himself.

“In 2008, I received a letter from FSIS saying that an internal review had found that at least six of my allegations of willful harassment and intentional acts to intimidate were substantiated and others were partially confirmed or possibly true,” Riley states. “But at the end of the letter, the agency added that no action against Legg was needed.”

In 2018, the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) launched an investigation into Dr. Jeffrey Legg and the FSIS at the request of the Montana Congressional delegation made up of Senator Steve Daines, Senator Jon Tester and Representative Greg Gianforte. However Riley feels as though nothing has ever been resolved. “Since the (OIG) investigation has started, Dr. Legg has not been coming into my business,” Riley said. “However, it was July 17, 2018, over a year ago, when the OIG investigator came to my shop. To this day I have not heard from anyone at OIG. We do not know whether the investigation is still being completed, whether it is done or what the timeline is for it to be completed.We are just waiting for the slow wheels of government to work.”

When asked about the investigation into Dr. Legg, FSIS’s response to TSLN was that they do not comment on ongoing USDA Office of Inspector General investigations. The Office of Inspector General, and Senator Tester’s office did not respond to TSLN’s request for comment.

Roy Lowenstein with Senator Tester’s office said the Senator is closely tracking the investigation but that the USDA IG doesn’t disclose information or timelines during ongoing investigations. “It is our understanding that, when the investigation is complete, there will be a delegation-wide briefing. The only acceptable solution here is complete and total transparency from FSIS and the USDA. If there was wrongdoing committed, Montanans deserve to know and the folks responsible need to be held accountable. Senator Tester is going to keep following the investigation closely and working with the folks in Butte, America to make sure that happens,” he said.

Representative Gianforte’s communications director Travis Hall said, “Greg remains troubled by Dr. Legg’s pattern of abuse and misconduct against family businesses, and he looks forward to the USDA concluding its investigation, getting to the bottom of it, and releasing its findings.”