Congress members, farmers want slaughterhouse issues resolved

Two members of Congress are trying to help resolve an ongoing conflict between Tri-Town Packing and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

During tense relations with new inspectors, the slaughterhouse and meat packing plant near Brasher Falls ceased future USDA meat inspections indefinitely. The closure blocks a nexus for North Country farms that rely on Tri-Town to get meat from the farm to the market during a crucial time of year for agriculture.

U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, have said they are actively mediating the dispute.

“I have personally spoken to both the owners of Tri-Town Packing and officials at the USDA in hopes of finding common ground that will allow Tri-Town Packing to continue to operate under a USDA certification,” Owens said in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, an acceptable solution has not yet been reached.”

Schumer has said he planned on getting in touch with Tri-Town to try to resolve the conflict while in Ogdensburg on July 7, according to the Watertown Daily Times. His ongoing involvement is unclear.

Conflict arose when a new group of inspectors was assigned to the 37-year-old packing plant in the fall of 2013. According to the Liberty family, which owns the company, tensions built as inspectors imposed strict deadlines for up-to-date changes and personal relations between them and Tri-Town’s employees flared.

In March, Tri-Town received a temporary suspension for humane handling problems.

In June, the FSIS said in a statement, “Tri-Town Packing Company has a history of violating food safety regulations and has failed to take adequate corrective action to ensure its products are safe.”

A more recent statement said the FSIS ceased operations and shut down Tri-Town’s facility on July 17 and would only reopen it once the agency determined the facility can “operate and produce product in a safe and wholesome way, abiding by FSIS laws and regulations.”

“What it comes down to is our staff as a whole is always going to work with a company to make sure we do everything we can to do market inspection,” USDA Public Affairs Specialist Lauren Kotwicki said. “If you aren’t following those rules and regulations, we aren’t going to put our stamp on it.”

Tri-Town is currently only taking private meat orders.

To determine the specific citations against Tri-Town, the Enterprise requested documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The request is pending.

Michelle Asselin, owner of Harmony Hills Farmstead in Malone, said she has been in frequent contact with the owners of Tri-Town. Switching from Tri-Town to the next-nearest packing plant would financially burden her farm with increased fuel and processing fees.

Without Tri-Town’s USDA inspection, Harmony Hills is unable to process cows and pigs, leaving 75 percent of the business stagnant. Asselin thinks “it would be more convenient and more conducive for farmers to get meat to the processor locally” if state-level meat inspection was available at Tri-Town in lieu of federal inspection.

Dan Burke, who with his wife owns Atlas Hoofed It Farm in Sugar Bush, defended Tri-Town and said that without meat processing, 1,000 pounds of cows and pigs mustered for processing each month on their farm would become costly pets.

“The owners of the (Tri-Town) facility, the Liberty family, have been in business 36 years and have an excellent business and personal reputation in the farming community,” Burke said. “I think some sort of mediation can be done to slowly fix these problems rather than abruptly halt it.”

Several local meat farms hope the issue ends with Tri-Town continuing routine USDA inspections familiar to their businesses for processing and selling meat.

The resolution to the matter remains uncertain, but the Libertys are undergoing consultation and expect to have a better sense of direction within a week.