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Cutting Steaks

Bart Riley cuts beef tenderloin fillets at Riley Meats.

Montana's Economic Affairs Interim Committee of the state legislature wants an apology from the United States Department of Agriculture and its Food Safety and Inspection Service branch.

Since 2005, its chief federal meat packing inspector has been engaging in a series of questionable, ticky-tack violations against Montana's state meat producers, especially targeting those who would dare ask questions or challenge these non-existent rules, like Butte's Bart Riley.

When extensive investigative reporting by The Montana Standard's David McCumber revealed systemic, years-long harassment and unfair treatment, the federal agency seemed nonplussed and nothing was done about it.

To illustrate the extent of the problem, Riley had even received written confirmation that the USDA had found many of Dr. Jeffrey Legg's violations were unnecessary and constituted harassment. Still, the small, relatively unknown federal agency appeared to do nothing to reprimand such appalling behavior. 

Legg remained employed and Riley, along with other state producers, continue to struggle to keep up with Legg and his capricious rules.

That's why Montana's legislative committee is demanding an apology. After all, Riley and a handful of other producers haven't even gotten an acknowledgement that the agency's action has been shoddy. It's bad enough these small Montana businesses have had to endure this behavior, but not to even receive an apology seems like an insult heaped upon hurt.

The federal government owes these targeted businesses at least that much. However, we also hope that someone from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's own department can explain the silence. We hope that Perdue, who became part of President Donald Trump's team, to "make America Great again" by helping small businesses, can watch as his own department harasses small producers out of existence.

An apology is a good first step. 

But, the interim committee was right to demand more than, "I'm sorry." 

The committee also asked for a fuller investigation into the matter. How did this happen? How did it continue? And, how widespread is this kind of attitude?

We wonder how the system could break down badly enough for it to realize that one of its own inspectors was acting so egregiously and yet nothing was done about it? You cannot help but think of other businesses or operators who were forced out rather than comply with regulations that were arbitrary, not to mention expensive.

And if the USDA or the Inspector General (which has been asked to look into the matter by Montana's Congressional delegation) decides to open a broad, more thorough look into Legg and the experiences here in Montana, especially those captured by the reporting in the Montana Standard, they should be ready to disclose the details as well as explain what steps are necessary to ensure it doesn't happen again.

It's not that Montana or even Bart Riley deserve better treatment than anyone else. It's just that we can't imagine this sort of bad behavior without consequence. Government should have some sort of accountability.

Riley and others are still owed an apology. We called for one months ago. The public is owed an explanation.