Montana's two U.S. senators and U.S. representative all issued sharp criticisms of the Food Safety and Inspection Service's treatment of a Butte meat plant Monday, and vowed continued action to hold the Department of Agriculture and the inspection agency accountable.
The reactions followed a two-day series in The Montana Standard detailing more than a decade of conflict between the agency's Montana front line supervisor, Dr. Jeffrey Legg, and small meat plants in the state, particularly Riley Meats in Butte.
The series detailed multiple occasions when Legg made demands of Riley's and other meat plants that were not consistent with or based on federal regulations. In 2008, Riley Meats owner Bart Riley received a letter from the agency saying that an internal review had found at least six allegations of willful harassment and intentional acts to intimidate or torment Riley were substantiated, and seven more were either partially confirmed or possibly true. But in the letter, the agency's deputy assistant administrator added that no action against Legg was needed. Legg continues to fill the same position.
FSIS' deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, Aaron Lavallee, did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday.
"What happened to Mr. Riley is entirely unacceptable," U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said Monday. "Any federal bureaucrat who harasses Montanans and purposely makes it harder to do business should be fired."
Tester, who has contacted FSIS several times on behalf of Riley, added, "The federal government must give small business owners the support they need to succeed, instead of numerous, painful checklists that cost time, money and heartburn."
Republican Sen. Steve Daines said Monday that "Montana businesses and producers deserve to have federal regulations enforced in a transparent, equitable and accountable manner and follow the letter of the law." He added that regulations "need to be based on sound science and food safety, not bureaucratic red tape."
Daines, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, is working to expedite nominations to key positions within FSIS and its parent department, USDA.
Upon reading The Montana Standard's series, Daines initiated inquiries with FSIS and the Agriculture Committee, a staffer confirmed.
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte also weighed in Monday, saying, "It is unacceptable for federal bureaucrats to target family businesses." He said he would continue his work in regulatory reform "so that out-of-control bureaucrats with a grudge can't push around our family businesses, shut down plants, and threaten Montana jobs."
Gianforte, a Republican member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, pledged to "investigate this matter thoroughly. I will not tolerate bureaucratic misconduct and abuse."
Tester, who serves on the Agriculture subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, encouraged anyone who has experienced "similar incidents" to reach out to his agricultural liaison, Jesse Anderson, at 406-449-5401.