Protecting Meat Processing Capacity & Private Property Rights
Your Boots On The Hill
March 3, 2021 | View PDF
Montana legislators have heard more than 400 bills this week, which shows the staggering pace that comes on the eve of transmittal deadline. We’ll cut straight to the chase here in week eight of the Montana Legislative Session, with a focus on meat processing bills and private property rights.
House Bill 336: Interstate cooperative meatpacking compact, sponsored by Rep. Brandon Ler (R), HD 35. Montana Farm Bureau member policy opposes.
The Interstate Compacting Bill sets up a framework to allow Montana to enter into agreement with other states to share our state-inspected meat across state lines. This bill aims to open up new markets for Montana ranchers, but unfortunately, the method it uses will actually do more harm than good for Montana’s farmers, ranchers and meat processors.
First, some background: In Montana, we have 24 United States Department of Agriculture-Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS)-inspected meat processing facilities. These plants are allowed to process meat for intrastate and interstate commerce (selling within the state and across the nation). Montana also has its own state meat inspection program, which operates under the authority of USDA-FSIS.
Under that program, Montana regulates and inspects state and custom exempt facilities. There are 35 state-inspected plants that are allowed to process meat for intrastate commerce. Only 27 states have state-inspection programs. Montana also has more than 100 custom exempt processing plants, which are allowed to process meat for the owner of the animal. While our state meat inspection program must abide by “at least equal to” standards for safety and sanitation, the state maintains control of the state-inspected programs, and the process for becoming a state-inspected or custom exempt plant is more easily attained than a USDA-inspected plant. All three types of processors are very important to our state and they each serve a different but significant purpose. A state inspection program greatly increases Montana’s meat processing capacity.
Back to House Bill 336. Its intent is to allow Montana to sell state-inspected meat across state lines (interstate commerce). The FSIS branch chief stated in a letter to Montana’s Department of Livestock, shared with legislators, that enactment of this legislation would violate federal law and jeopardize the “at least equal to” status of the Montana Meat and Poultry Inspection (MPI) program. Losing Montana’s MPI program’s “at least equal to” status would jeopardize state and custom exempt meat processors across the state, resulting in fewer outlets for Montana grown and raised livestock.
Enactment of House Bill 336 would also make Montana ineligible for the Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) program, a FSIS-approve framework that already exists to allow states with an “at least equal to” designation to ship meat in interstate commerce, providing market opportunities for local producers. Montana Farm Bureau urged legislators to consider using the existing framework rather than inventing a new one that risks putting us in violation of federal law.
After the hearing, HB 336 was amended with a contingent effective date based on a couple qualifiers, meaning it would not be implemented until one of the following happens: Congress ratifies the Interstate Cooperative Meatpacking Compact or a court determines the Interstate Cooperative Meatpacking Compact is not preempted by federal law. With that amendment, the bill was passed out of the House Agriculture Committee and will be heard on the House floor before the transmittal deadline.
Senate Bill 279: Revise laws related to meatpacking exemptions. Sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Bogner (R), SD 19. Montana Farm Bureau member policy opposes.
This bill concerns the third type of meat processing facility in Montana: custom exempt. As previously stated, these processing facilities are allowed to process meat for the owner of the animal. Montana is fortunate to have 128 of these custom-exempt plants operating in our state. Senate Bill 279 proposes allowing custom-exempt processors to sell meat commercially.
Montana Farm Bureau members passed specific policy against this idea at our November convention, with good reason. First, our farming and ranching members care about protecting consumer safety and public health. Custom exempt plants are only inspected twice a year, and while many are just as sanitary and safe as any other state or USDA-inspected plant, there is a slightly elevated risk for pathogens or food-borne illness in these facilities.
Our next concern deals with displacing the purpose of these plants: to process animals for the owner of the livestock. We’ve all experienced the challenge of getting on a processor’s calendar for harvest dates. Opening these plants up for commercial sales only makes it harder for ranchers to get their own beef processed. These plants are a vital part of a rancher’s business.
Finally, the bottom line of this bill is that it, too, stands in violation of federal law and puts Montanans at risk of losing our state inspection program.
House Bill 554: Require legislative approval of national heritage areas, historic trails, sponsored by Rep. Joshua Kassmier (R), HD 27. Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports.
This bill holds special importance to our Farm Bureau members in Cascade and Chouteau counties, but it carried implications for all private property owners across Montana. House Bill 554 aims to require legislative approval of any National Heritage Areas before they are designated. A National Heritage Area is “designated by Congress for its unique nationally significant qualities and resources.” When designated, these areas operate under a partnership with the National Parks Service.
Montana Farm Bureau members also passed specific policy on this subject, opposing the establishment of National Heritage Areas at our 2020 convention, with pointed opposition to the proposed Big Sky Country National Heritage Area, which would designate over 2 million acres of privately owned property in Cascade and Chouteau counties.
Management of the proposed BSCNHA would be vested in a private organization whose directors are not elected by or accountable to property owners within the boundaries. If a private citizen is unhappy with their decisions, he or she has no ability to vote them out. Establishing an NHA would add an unnecessary and duplicative layer of federal oversight through the National Park Service, on top of the local, state and federal regulations and programs already in place to promote the economy and preserve the history and heritage of Central Montana.
This bill would add a level of accountability through our elected state legislators before a National Heritage Area could be designated, and that’s a win for our local communities and property owners. To learn more about this issue, visit http://www.mfbf.org and sign the Action Alert urging against the establishment of the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area.
Senate Bill 338: Revise civil liability laws, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang (R), SD 17. Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports.
This straightforward bill clarifies that if someone is trespassing on private property, the landowner holds no liability in the case of injury, except in the case of willful or wanton misconduct. It’s almost shocking this isn’t already law, but the bill offers important clarification moving forward. The bill notes that, “a landowner owes a trespasser no duty of care with respect to the condition of the property,” and, “A trespasser enters or remains on the trespassed property without any assurance that the property is safe for any purpose.”
This is a good and important bill for all property owners, especially farmers and ranchers, to support.
Senate Bill 307: Revise liability limits for irrigation operators, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang (R), SD 17. Montana Farm Bureau member policy supports.
Senate Bill 307 also offers important clarification on landowner liabilities, focused specifically on duties relating to irrigation ditches and structures. While irrigation districts and private owners are required to keep irrigation structures and infrastructure in good repair, Montana law already limits the liability of private ditch owners or irrigation districts in the case of personal injury or property damage concerning these water conveyances.
However, the current legal language may be interpreted to indicate that these liability limitations only apply to irrigation ditches, as the legal language only includes iterations of the word “ditch.” This bill clarifies and specifically names all forms of conveyances, including diversions, aqueducts, canals, ditches, drains, flumes, headgates, siphons or other water conveyance structures or infrastructure connected to irrigation ditches. This ensures all irrigators are protected.
For more legislative updates and details on these issues, follow our Live with Your Lobbyist broadcast each Friday at noon on our Montana Farm Bureau Facebook Page.
Nicole Rolf is the Governmental Affairs senior director and a rancher from Miles City, MT. Nicole works closely with our Congressional delegation on national issues affecting Montana agriculture. Additionally, this is her seventh Montana Legislative Session, lobbying in Helena on behalf of MFBF members. She also works as the Eastern Montana Regional Manager. Nicole can be contacted at [email protected]
Rachel Cone is the Montana Farm Bureau Federation Director of State Affairs. This is Rachel’s first session lobbying on behalf of Montana Farm Bureau. Rachel is involved throughout the interim session to track how bills will come to the session. She also coordinates the MFBF Water Committee, the Resource Management, Environment and Technology Committee and the Livestock Committee in addition to being the Farm Bureau PAC treasurer. Rachel can be contacted at [email protected]