HELENA, Mont. — A Montana legislative committee is seconding a request that the U.S. Department of Agriculture order an outside investigation into allegations that small meat processors in the state were intimidated, coerced and tormented by federal inspectors.
Montana’s congressional delegation wrote to Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong in December asking for an outside investigation over concerns of misconduct within the Food Safety and Inspection Service in Montana dating back to 2005.
The letter notes that FSIS found in 2008 that Butte shop owner Bart Riley made valid complaints about an inspector who ordered changes and improvements not required by federal regulations, but the agency took no disciplinary action.
Montana’s Economic Affairs Interim Committee voted Wednesday to write to Fong reiterating the investigation request to ensure large and small meat processors are being treated uniformly and asking for a personal apology to Riley and any other businesses subject to write-ups that did not follow federal law.
“They should apologize,” said Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula. “They should apologize to Riley Meats because we don’t do that in Montana. If you make a mistake you say ‘I’m sorry,’ and ‘How do I fix it.'”
Until 2005, inspectors considered Riley’s business — which was started by his grandfather in 1948 — to be immaculate, The Montana Standard reported in September.
The inspector required Riley to replace wood pallets with plastic, make repairs to a basement floor that was not used for meat processing, replace metal walls with glass board, buy stainless steel carts and build him an office.
Riley spent $10,000 on the improvements before learning they were not required under federal regulations.
When he pushed back, the Standard reported, the harassment and the number of non-compliance records filed against Riley Meats piled up.
At one point he received a citation questioning whether his business had drinkable water, despite the fact it had been hooked up to the city water supply for decades. He was asked to provide a letter certifying that the city water was drinkable.
Riley spent an increasing amount of time appealing citations that were later overturned and filing several official complaints, some of which weren’t even acknowledged, the Standard reported.
The legislative committee’s letter notes that Ron Eckel with the FSIS, who made a presentation to the committee, was asked if it would be appropriate to issue an apology if someone in his agency was found to have engaged in intentional acts to intimidate or coerce someone.
“If there’s wrongdoing in anything we do as civil servants and it was confirmed, then yes, an apology is warranted,” he said.
This story has been updated to correct that the committee voted Wednesday.