By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany says the U.S. Department of Agriculture overstepped its authority in demanding a small-town Wisconsin meat processor force its employees to wear masks. And he wants U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack to immediately rescind USDA’s “unfair notice.”
The Minocqua Republican tells Empower Wisconsin USDA is using similar heavy-handed tactics elsewhere, and more state employees have stepped forward saying the Evers administration is pulling the same kind of COVID-related power trips.
“It’s becoming more apparent why this is happening. It’s not about the safety of USDA employees; this is about the federal government controlling people’s lives,” Tiffany said.
As Empower Wisconsin first reported, Nolechek’s Meats was warned last month by the USDA that the agency’s inspectors would pull inspections of the Thorp meat processor’s products if its employees didn’t wear masks when inspectors were on site. Without inspections, Nolechek’s could not sell its meats wholesale in markets beyond Wisconsin.
Co-owner Lindsey (Nolechek’) Fox told USDA the plant’s policy is masks optional for its employees. USDA said that was not acceptable. Nolechek’s appealed. It lost within 12 hours. In a denial letter, USDA agent Phillip Bronstein wrote that the plant is located in Clark County, which is considered to have “high community transmission of COVID-19” according to the CDC’s records.
Facing another hit to a business already knocked around in the COVID economy, the little meat processor was forced to come up with a “corrective plan” acceptable to USDA. When masked inspectors come in, plant employees that choose not to wear a face covering will have to leave the production area.
Nolechek’s is appealing, and Tiffany has sent a letter to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack questioning the legal rationale for USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Services’ “flawed order.” Tiffany notes FSIS comes close to admitting it has no legal basis in its communications with Nolechek’s. In one letter the agency notes it “does not have authority to abate hazardous conditions directly.”
“Instead, the agency claims the mandate is necessary to ‘provide [agency] employees with safe and healthy working conditions.’ This is, simply put, absurd,” the congressman writes.
USDA asserts that it is just following Centers for Disease Control & Prevention guidance advising universal indoor masking, including the vaccinated, in areas with high COVID rates.
The FSIS order is to remain effect until Aug. 4, 2022, according to the agency’s notice.
“FSIS will now expect official meat and poultry establishments, egg products plants, and all other facilities where FSIS provides inspection services, such as voluntary inspection service, to follow recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and require their employees or contractors to wear masks when IPP are present, if the establishment is located in a county with ‘substantial’ or ‘high’ community transmission of COVID-19. “
But guidance does not come with the force of law, Tiffany said.
“It is clear that this tortured interpretation of authority was fabricated by the agency in bad faith, working backwards from a pre-ordained and nakedly political preferred outcome,” he wrote in the letter to the Ag secretary. “It is no secret that the Biden administration is determined to usurp the authority of states in an ongoing, and seemingly never-ending crusade to pursue mask mandates and politicize public health.”
Tiffany said USDA’s overreach is not an isolated incident. His office is hearing from congressional colleagues around the country who have received similar complaints from constituents. He said his office also is hearing from a growing number of state employees complaining of similar strong-arm tactics from the Evers administration.
Evers has said he’s weighing a COVID vaccination mandate for state employees, or at least weekly testing. He recently announced state workers have until next Thursday to disclose whether they’ve had the shot.
“We are hearing from a lot of state employees. They are alarmed, concerned, and angry about what is being proposed by the Evers administration,” Tiffany said.
In his letter to Vilsack, Tiffany said federal inspectors have a variety of “less invasive and costly steps” they could take that “do not slap new costs and misguided regulations on small processing facilities,” like Nolechek’s. There are more than 500 meat processors in the Badger State, most of them small plants. As Tiffany notes, Nolechek’s has an immaculate record of quality and a long history of compliance with USDA rules and standards.
“In addition to being transparently partisan, this order will kill jobs, further disrupt already scrambled supply chains, create unnecessary risk food security, and harm consumers,” the congressman wrote.
“I hope you will immediately rescind this unfair notice and take steps to work with – not against – those in the agriculture and food processing sectors during this challenging time.”