Here’s the beef: Ag producers want change in inspection system

Montana House argues ranchers, farmers are getting squeeze by big packers

By: - February 23, 2021 7:43 pm

State veterinarian Dr. Marty Zaluski testifies on House Bill 336 in the House Agriculture Committee on Feb. 23, 2021 (Montana Public Access Network)

Montana livestock producers and meat packers have a beef with how Montana grown meat is processed, and several, including Montana’s Speaker of the House, want to reinvent the system.

Their idea, presented in House Bill 336, would forge an interstate compact — or agreement — between willing states that would adhere to the same regulations as federally inspected meat-packing plants so that packers and ranchers could market products across state lines. Currently, in order to transport meat across state lines it has to be processed in a federally-inspected facility. Critics say the cumbersome process, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is set up to maintain a stranglehold for four large meat-packing companies in the United States.

During testimony before the Montana House Agriculture Committee, proponents of the bill the argued that the measure, which is also being considered seriously in South Dakota, would allow states to regain control of their own agricultural destiny.

However, a letter from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service warned Montana officials that should HB336 pass, the state would stand to lose more than $1.2 million in annual funding and would fall out of compliance with the federal law, meaning animal producers would not be able to ship finished product beyond the state lines. Even more problematic, the state would have to fund its portion of the inspection program.

That warning alone brought out concerns of ranchers, meat packers and state officials who suggested several other ways to tackle the problem without risking federal sanctions.

“Right now, as this legislation is written, it is trying to make the illegal, legal,” said Marty Zaluski, the Montana state veterinarian with the Department of Livestock. “If we lose our meat inspection facilities, what happens then? If unamended, this will result in losses to our producers and losses in markets.”

One possible solution that many pointed out on Tuesday afternoon was U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines’ support of federal legislation that would allow states that have standards that are equal to or more stringent than federal guidelines to ship product to other states. The bill is called “New Markets for State Inspected Meats and Poultry Act.”

Another solution that was suggested is the Cooperative Interstate Transport Act, which allows some shipping of agricultural products between state lines.

Some of those who testified during the bill’s hearing were also skeptical of the states that were interested in joining a multi-state agreement. They argued that places like South Dakota don’t want Montana beef, for example. Instead, many consumers want food produced closer to home. The markets for Montana beef, they said, are farther away.

Jake Feddes, who ranches about 300 head of Red Angus and also owns a processing plant in Amsterdam, called the legislation “devastating” because of the loss of federal support.

“I want to send my meat to a place where there’s not a low population of people and high population of livestock. And, I can get twice as much for my ‘Big Sky Ribeye,’” Feddes said.

He said upgrades to make his plant federally qualified would take more than a quarter million dollars.

“This doesn’t do our farmers or ranchers any good,” Feddes said.

Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, said that an amendment to the bill was already being drafted that would put the legislation on hold until the idea got federal approval. However, Ler argued the point was to start the conversation and work on solutions that would keep Montana producers from being at the mercy of large packing plants, several of which have foreign ownership.

“What we’ve got now is not working, and it’s only protecting the big producers,” Ler said.

The four largest producers are Cargill, Tyson, JBS and National Beef.

“We had a supply chain breakdown,” said Speaker Wylie Galt in an interview with the Daily Montanan Tuesday.

Because more than 80 percent of all meat packing is processed by four large corporations, when COVID-19 hit and shut down large processing facilities, it interrupted the food supply system throughout the country.

“The state lines are imaginary boundaries. This will allow every rancher to do their own marketing,” said Galt, R-Martinsdale. “More people want locally grown food. They want to know where their food is coming from and this will also take out two or three middlemen.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.