Montana Meat Plant Shuts Down Briefly

USDA shuts down Montana plant. John Spitler

Published on: Aug 15, 2005

After seeing its meat-cutting operation suspended for a week by federal inspectors, a Butte, Montana, packing plant filled with 4-H fair-time cattle, hog and sheep carcasses was up and running again in early August.

But not before Ranchland Meat’s downtime had upset a few people. "It’s the totality of the circumstances that is bothersome," says Dennis McDonald, president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association. "When you start to look at it in terms of timing, in terms of violations, in terms of how it was handled administratively -- it’s just a very curious set of circumstances.

"We just hope USDA isn’t taking this action in retribution for MCA, for Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund and Gov. Schweitzer’s actions to protect the Montana cow herd from Canadian bovine spongiform encephalopathy."

McDonald referred to actions taken in recent months by upstart R-CALF, the Montana governor, and other political independents to see that Canadian cattle weren’t allowed back into this country too soon.

No, says USDA spokeswoman Amanda Eamich, inspectors’ actions had nothing to do with the Canadians and everything to do with "violation of the U.S. Federal Meat and Inspection Act in terms of plant sanitation. They were condemned until conditions could be made acceptable and the products could be made wholesome again for human consumption."

During the suspension, federal inspectors impounded the 200 carcasses hanging in Ranchland Meat’s cold storage until the plant submitted a corrective action plan which it did Aug. 10.

McDonald says he and others who have tried to complain about any of this quickly discovered they had no one to complain to. "Those affected," says McDonald, "if they called the FSIS office get a response that says, ‘The person who signed the (plant closure) order is on vacation.’ We don’t know where he’s at on vacation."

Sometime during all of this, USDA issued a press release announcing the inspection and "the major violations" it had uncovered at Ranchland Meats. "There was … just general unsanitary conditions that rendered the products unsanitary," says Eamich. "There were rodents and insects.

"They have been told in many discussions that as soon as they submit this plan that we will immediately review it to see if it’s acceptable and have one of our folks out there to verify that these inspected measures have been applied…"

"In response to that (inspection and news release) we called the regional (FSIS) office in Minneapolis," says McDonald. "They said, ‘Naw, these are rather minor violations and the plant can be opened in a day or so. So then Sen. Baucus makes a couple of calls and the plants are reopened, and it turns out, the violations were rather minor. Normally they would have been handled with a warning."

One was cobwebs in a pallet that was off the kill floor. Apparently the rodent droppings were in a secretarial area also away from the kill plant.

Both McDonald and Brett Debruycker, MCA vice president, question USDA’s motive for closing processing plants in Montana. "These kids worked hard all year on the 4-H market-animal projects and made a significant financial investment," says Debruycker. "This thoughtless intervention by FSIS is unconscionable. What in the world has happened at USDA?"

John and Charisse Sutsch operate two small state-licensed slaughterhouses in Sheridan where John decided recently not to try and qualify one of them as a federal plant because of the expense and hassle. "I was trying to turn one federal, but he (the federal inspector) wanted so much stuff that I might as well have tore it down and built a new plant," says Sutsch. "He told me he needs his own shower, bathroom and office, and I’ve already checked into all that and it’s not really required anymore.  He was just way out of line."