Last week the Montana Standard published a special report detailing how a government agency has been harassing small meat processors in Butte and around the state.
MTPR's Nora Saks spoke with David McCumber, the editor of the paper, who also wrote the report.
Nora Saks: The Montana Standard dropped a two-part special investigative report last week about a very long running conflict between small meat processors in Montana and the federal agency that inspects them. Can you briefly tell us what was the meat of the story? What the heart was?
David McCumber: The meat, yes.
The story is basically that under the urging of a frontline supervisor for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, that's the federal service that does inspect meat plants, inspectors were giving meat plant operators citations for not complying with regulations. But the kicker was that the regulations weren't real. They were something that the frontline supervisor had said needed to be done, but what he said didn't match the federal regulations.
In particular, I focused on a wholesale and retail meat operation in Butte. Bart Riley owns Riley's meats, and he has been feuding with the FSIS, this federal agency, which by the way is part of the Department of Agriculture, for 12 years since this frontline supervisor first came into his shop.
Bart is extremely proud of his plant, which is immaculate and has always been found to be so by federal, state and local inspectors of various kinds. And so it was a real shock to him when this person came in and told him he had to make many changes, and many of the changes were quite expensive. So he pushed back on this, and he began doing research and he discovered that everything he'd been told to do was not in the regulations.
NS: He started to find some inconsistencies, and no basis for some of these changes he was being required to make. What happened then?
DM: Then, some other plants in the state also started complaining about similar issues. The Service brought a team of executives from Washington for listening sessions around the state. At those sessions they assured small plant owners like Bart Riley that, no, you don't have to replace your wooden pallets, and no, these regulations aren't really regulations, and so you don't have to follow them.
So, despite that, Bart started getting citations for some of the very things that the brass from Washington said weren't really regulations. He ultimately protested, because pretty soon he got just a blizzard of these citations that would force him to take time to respond to. He filed an official protest.
The fact is that the agency told Bart that, yes, we think that you've been willfully harassed, but we're not going to do a thing about it. That no further action was deemed necessary. And indeed, 12 years later, the person about whom Bart complained, a frontline supervisor, Jeffery Legg, is still in the same position.
NS: And what struck me is, while the story of Riley Meats in Butte is fascinating, it's not just that business. This is across the board with other small meat plants in Montana. Can you tell me a little bit about some of the bigger patterns that you observed?
DM: I did see several instances of exactly the same behavior, and interestingly several of them involved businesses that were trying to expand and become federally inspected. I mean, meat plants don't have to be federally inspected. If they're only doing work within the state they can be just inspected by the state. But if a plant wants to sell product outside the state, as Bart does, you have to federally inspected.
In any event it just seemed like the same pattern occurred in all three of these other cases. What happened was the laundry list of regulations, or of requirements, was so long and so onerous that all three of them decided to modify their modify their business plan and not seek federal inspection. And two of those operations are now defunct, and no longer employing anybody or doing any work.
NS: This behavior seems to have had a chilling effect on the growth of small meat processors in the area.
DM: I think that's really true, and I think it seems as so the federal government is just not interested in more small plants. I don't know what the motivation behind this is. But I do know that it's happened, and it's happened consistently.
NS: I want to know more about how the Montana Standard, and you as the editor got motivated to take this on as an issue.
DM: Well, I wrote it myself, I heard about this a mutual friend. I didn't know Bart Riley, I'd never met him, but I heard about this from someone who's a friend of his and and a friend of mine. And I thought, that just doesn't sound right, but it sounds interesting if it's happening. So I went to visit Bart, and I found out that all this had transpired.
So I began doing my homework, trying to verify what happened, and I ended up talking to several inspectors who worked for FSIS in the state, including some who are now retired, and who were able to speak a little bit more freely. And I also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal government, looking for a great deal of information about FSIS and it's relationship with Riley Meats.
I've got a full time job as editor of the paper, so I did this sort of on the side, when I could. And I had to to of course wait for the return on the document request, so I did in the meantime a lot of other interviews and so forth, and finally was able to put the story together and get it in the paper last week.
To me, the saddest thing about the story is that Bart had always hoped and planned on turning his business over to his children, who would be the fourth generation of Rileys to run Riley Meats. His grandfather started the business in Butte in 1948, but now after they've seen what he's been through over the past decade-plus, they want nothing to do with it, and that's unfortunate.
NS: Since the story dropped last week, has it had any impact on decision makers, on lawmakers, on those in the industry? Have you seen any ripple effects yet?
DM: Well, you know it's really interesting. One of the things I've seen is first of all it's been read across the country. Suddenly I'm sort of a clearinghouse for calls from meat plants and producers who have called me from Tennessee, from Massachusetts, from Colorado, kind of all over, basically saying: This has happened here. Inspectors have held us to regulations that we've later found out didn't exist. To me that puts a whole other light on the story, that indeed hearing that it's happening elsewhere in the country makes it seem that it's more policy than it is an anomaly, and I find that surprising, actually.
NS: Definitely, because in this story it made it seem like it was falling a lot in the lap of this one inspector. After putting in so many hours to bring this story to surface, are there any other takeaways you'd like to share with us?
DM: I mean, this is a story you don't think can possibly be true when you first hear about it. I've had a few of those in my career, and those are always the best stories if they actually turn out to be true, as this one did. Those are always the best stories because just there's that wow factor. And I think there's a lot of frustration with the federal government, some of it I think is justified, some of it I'm not sure about. But in this case, when it gets down to the retail level, it gets down to one bureaucrat affecting life and livelihood of one small businessman, I mean, then I think it's a classic case of government overreach, and therefore interesting to a lot people, and it sure was interesting to me.
Read the Montana Standard story here: Feds admit harassing small Butte meat plant, but take no action