by Evelyn Pyburn

Spring is peak jerky season.

So, for S&T Project Meats to suddenly have their jerky – their best-selling product – recalled by the government and to be forced to pull it from shelves, has been a devastating blow for this small family-owned business, located near Huntley.

All the more painful, given that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the meat, and the action came as a result of efforts to improve upon the processes required of them by the state and the federal government.

State inspectors imposed the recall on May 5, after failing to acquire documentation from the company, which the owners said they did not know they had to have. 

A couple of weeks ago, Commissioner John Ostlund put the issue on the county commissioners’ regular discussion agenda, after being approached by Flowers about possible recourses open to them, saying that he did not believe that they were being treated fairly by state regulators.

The meeting was about more than hoping to get the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) to rescind the recall; the Flowers are fighting to retain the reputation of their small business upon which their livelihood is based.

In attendance at the meeting were public health officials, a representative of the Governor’s office, other jerky manufacturers in the state, and supporters of S&T Project Meats.

Ostlund said that he was concerned about the impacts that the action has on local business and the local economy. “This is more than just confusing” for the producers, said Ostlund, “it is a crisis” given its impact to their businesses.

The good news is that after a month with no jerky on the shelves, as of a week ago, the jerky  was back on S & T Project Meats’ shelves and that of their customers. They are also back in production, but not because of having won an appeal. In fact, they were informed by email on May 25, that their appeal was denied by the DOL.

Although asked to attend the commissioners’ meeting, no one from the Montana Department of Livestock was present. A phone call, eventually got Mike Honeycutt, executive director of the Montana Department of Livestock, included in the conversation on a conference call.

Honeycutt said that his agency had decided that no one would be at the meeting since there was an appeal pending. But, Flowers said, the discussion was just as much about problems that seem to permeate the operation of the agency and are of concern to meat processors throughout the state. That was why several other processors were present at the meeting. Several had submitted letters outlining their concerns regarding how the agency has been operating.

Flowers said that there is considerable concern among meat processors because “We are worried that the program is going to fail.” Far from wanting to eliminate regulation, he said, “We want to emphasize the importance of the program, but it needs to change.”

Honeycutt said that there would be a hearing on the appeal but there was no hearing. The Flowers simply received an email.

The next step in the process will be to take their appeal before the Montana Board of Livestock.

The jerky that the Flowers are now selling is that which was made after the dates of the recalled product. The recall was for jerky packed between April 10, 2016 and April 10, 2017, following an “audit” by federal inspectors on April 10. Inspectors imposed the recall after failing to acquire documentation from S & T Project Meats, regarding the monitoring of the opening and closing of dampers on the ovens in which the jerky is processed.

Flowers said that the jerky they are now selling was made after April 10, and in compliance with the regulation to track the dampers.  He said that they went back into production a week after the recall, only to have to quit again, after receiving a “cease and desist” order from the DOL, which was issued to all jerky processors in the state, so that inspectors could make sure that everyone was in compliance in the use of their dampers.

“They pulled all of our product that we made between April 10 and May 8,” said Flowers, “They tied up all that product and then released it.” The product under recall is still “tied up.”

No date has been set for a hearing before the Board of Livestock. “We still have to get the appeals written and signed and sent to them,” said Flowers.  The process is being handled by a Wisconsin consultant hired by the Flowers. He specializes in representing businesses like S & T Project Meats.  Flowers said that the consultant used to work for the USDA, but started his own business, “after seeing a lot of plants in the same situation as us.”

Their appeal is based, in part, on the contention that the infraction regarding dampers, about which the inspectors were concerned, is not a “critical control point” for jerky processing, so it should not have triggered a recall, according to Flowers.  “The critical control point is the temperature reached,” he said, “and that was documented.”

In addition, the Flowers question a process that can cast doubt about the quality of the company’s product without any due process.  Flowers believes that before a recall, his company should have been given an opportunity to appeal. They should have been immediately informed about the right to do so, and about the process to be pursued.  The Flowers were only able to find out the options available to them through their hired consultant.

It was not what he had learned to expect from the legal process, said Flowers, “I struggle about that from a personal level, I can’t explain.” 

There is no problem with the quality of S & T Project Meats’ jerky. Although, DOL did not test the jerky and told the Flowers they could not test it, they had it tested anyway. Two different packages, packed on different dates. Sent to an independent lab. The results were negative. The product is good.

“Shouldn’t you have some sort of proof that the product is harmful?” questioned Flowers.  Besides damaging S & T Project Meats’ reputation, “All they did was scare a bunch people,” he said.

Flowers said that despite the fact that, during processing, inspectors are on the floor daily and that their supervisors are present weekly to oversee inspections, no one had ever before mentioned a need to document the opening and closing of dampers, a process that has been automated to make such monitoring unnecessary.

The Flowers automated the damper process using current technology, which they developed with the consultation of Jane Ann Boles, PhD of the Animal and Range Sciences Department of Montana State University.

Boles submitted a statement to the DOL regarding the recall saying, “I have addressed the questions about the jerky process at Project Meats. I do not believe it is necessary to proceed with a recall.” She suggested that the DOL require, instead, “a monthly check on the dampers.”

The antiquated damper regulation was brought to light only when inspectors from the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) came to Montana to audit the state program. “If the feds are requiring something why wasn’t the state up to speed?” questioned Flowers, who believes advancing technology has actually made the monitoring requirement moot. The computer data is far more accurate and “believable,” since human tracking could easily be fudged.

Honeycutt stated that his agency issued the recall upon direction from the FSIS. And, the recall is not about whether the product is unsafe, but that “the product is potentially unsafe.”

Honeycutt said that sometimes there is a “coziness” that develops between inspectors and producers, and that that is something the federal inspectors are often concerned about. 

The recall has been hard on the Flowers’ business. “No jerky on the shelf. . . We have seen a big effect. The last three weeks, Tanya and I have been dealing with paperwork in regard to this matter… that has been a hardship in itself.”