HELENA – A Montana legislative committee says it wants more answers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about claims that meat processors in the state have faced harassment from food safety inspectors.

The Economic Affairs Interim Committee voted Wednesday to send a letter to the department, calling for an independent investigation of allegations about the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

“The public has a right to know how FSIS regulations are being implemented by both federal and state inspectors and whether these inspections are being done uniformly,” the letter said.

Story continues below

The letter also says, if any wrongdoing is confirmed, the agency should make an apology to the affected businesses.

The most prominent allegations of harassment involve Riley Meats, a processing facility in Butte. Owner Bart Riley claims a federal food safety inspector has targeted his business for years, citing him for violations that have no basis in federal regulations.

“It doesn’t really if you’re Republican or Democrat, or live in a town or live out in the country,” said Rep. Nate McConnell, a Democrat from Missoula. “This is an issue that affects all of us. This is somebody who comes in and simply makes up rules and then punishes somebody for not having followed those made-up rules. We don’t like that in Montana. Our voice is united.”

U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte previously signed a letter, calling for the department to release more information about the claims of misconduct and about any steps that have been taken to address them.

The Economic Affairs Interim Committee also heard updates Wednesday about how a massive proposed food processing plant outside Great Falls could affect Montana’s livestock industries.

The Madison Food Park would be built on 3,000 acres of undeveloped land about 8 miles east of Great Falls. The Canadian company Friesen Foods plans to create processing facilities for cattle, pigs and poultry, along with a cheese plant and a distilling facility. Leaders say, once the food park reaches its top capacity, it could support up to 3,000 jobs.

Mike Honeycutt, executive officer with the state Board of Livestock, told lawmakers the plant could bring big changes to livestock production in Montana. He estimated it could take at least 50 new farms in the state to produce enough chickens to meet the plant’s demand. New infrastructure might also have to be built for expanded hog production.

The food park could also change the way Montana cattle ranchers do business. Currently, most cattle raised in the state are shipped elsewhere to be slaughtered and processed. But Honeycutt said the plant would have the capacity to process hundreds of thousands of cattle each year. He said some might have to be brought in from outside the state to meet those requirements.

“We already do have a lot of breeding livestock that come into the state of Montana, so we are set up to receive and inspect and properly handle if we become a beef import state, which is very different from what we are today,” he said.

Honeycutt told lawmakers many people in the Great Falls area are strongly supportive of the food park because of the economic benefits it would bring. But he said many others oppose it, over concerns about its effect on neighboring properties, along with potential environmental effects and strain on local services.