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USDA certification shut down at Tri-Town Packing

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BRASHER CENTER — Tri-Town Packing no longer has a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified inspection business because of turmoil with inspectors and regulatory demands, throwing into disarray a meat market that requires the USDA seal on products for retail sale.

Tri-Town was one of two USDA-certified slaughterhouses in St. Lawrence County and a major regional conduit for north country-raised meat that is sold to retailers, restaurants and distributors.

“It has effectively put a lot of people out of business,” said Thomas J. Liberty, owner of the plant with his son, Jeffrey A. “Obviously, this is catastrophic for many of our customers. I’m just devastated, but it’s not worth a heart attack. I don’t know where this will end up.”

Mr. Liberty said problems with USDA inspection staff at the plant have been building for some time.

“It just came to the breaking point,” he said.

Mr. Liberty said there are no plans for layoffs and the plant, which has more than a dozen employees, will continue to process meat for people who raise livestock for their own freezers.

There are a number of issues, including what appear to be personality conflicts.

Mr. Liberty accused inspectors of incompetence and of alleging workplace violence.

He said the plant tested the ability of the inspectors by not notifying them of a diseased animal, which they certified.

“It’s absolutely disgusting they could pass that. We had warned the USDA over and over about the competence,” he said. “It was swept under the rug. We complained about what we felt was the necessity for further training. We proved it. I can no longer work with the inspection staff here. At least I stood up for what was right.”

Inspectors have problems of their own with Tri-Town, having cited the plant several times.

In March, the USDA issued the plant a notice of suspension held in abeyance based on a proposed corrective plan. The USDA determined that the slaughterhouse failed to handle animals humanely.

Corrective measures included limiting personnel who can stun along with regulated lamb stunning procedures.

Mr. Liberty declined to go into specifics about the allegation but said his plant has operated for 37 years.

“For the average reader, I would not even comment on that because they don’t understand the business,” he said. “If you have a machinery breakdown or there are human mistakes, the question is how do you handle it? We have always handled everything here professionally. Every animal here is treated with respect.”

Mr. Liberty said he expected the USDA to pin the blame on his facility.

“They will paint a very different picture of this plant and us, but I can live with that,” he said. “Our reputation is everything here.”

St. Lawrence County Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena, said he already has contacted U.S. Rep. William L. Owens and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand about working out a solution.

“They provide a valued service. They’re great, hard-working people,” he said of Tri-Town Packing. “I believe some of the ever-changing regulatory process makes it hard for a small business to continually make the changes to be compliant.”

Having Tri-Town in good standing with the USDA is important to north country agriculture, county Industrial Development Agency Executive Director Patrick J. Kelly said.

“This is an important processing facility. It’s regional, from down in Jefferson County over to Vermont,” he said. “They’re important to the whole value chain in terms of agriculture and food production.”

Some producers contacted by Tri-Town already are considering their options if its USDA certification remains gone.

“In that case, our business will be done,” said Cassandra M. Barton, 8 O’clock Ranch, DeKalb Junction, which sells beef, pork and lamb processed at Tri-Town along with chickens and turkeys it handles itself.

8 O’clock has made short-term arrangements with Red Barn Meats, Croghan, to take care of commitments to its Community Supported Agriculture customers. But making weekly trips to Croghan is too time-consuming and stressful to the animals to make that a long-term answer, Mrs. Barton said.

She said USDA inspectors have made a number of demands on Tri-Town.

“They were scrambling to meet them,” she said. “I’m sure they were wondering if this will ever end. The rules and regulations seem like they were based on large facilities. The regulations don’t necessarily fit them.”

Tri-Town covers such a large geographic area that its elimination as a USDA-certified plant will have long-term impacts, she said.

Jordan D. Brandt, Red Barn Meats, said that he already has fielded half a dozen calls from producers about the availability of space at his slaughterhouse but that he was not jumping to conclusions yet that Tri-Town was out of the picture.

“I’d like to give it a week or two and see what happens,” he said.

Ward Willard & Son, Heuvelton, also has heard from a handful of nervous producers.

John Willard said he hoped the situation at Tri-Town was resolved quickly.

“I can understand what they’re going through, but you still have to do what the government tells you to do,” he said. “I just hope they get things straightened out.”

Among the other major commercial beef operations that utilizes Tri-Town Packing is Kilcoyne Farms, Brasher Falls. They market their beef throughout the north country and in the Adirondack region.

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