By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Nolechek’s Meats is a family-owned business that has been the pride of Thorp, Wisconsin for four generations.
But President Joe Biden’s U.S. Department of Agriculture has hindered the little meat processor in recent weeks with heavy-handed COVID-related restrictions.
In early August, Nolechek’s received a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) notice advising that all inspectors and employees of meat processing plants are mandated to wear masks during inspection. It was part of the Biden administration’s edict requiring all federal employees to don face coverings, regardless of vaccination status, amid rising numbers of COVID-19.
But Wisconsin does not have a mask mandate, despite Gov. Tony Evers’ attempts to force one on the Badger State.
Nolechek’s policy is masks optional for its employees, as noted in an inspection document. So co-owner Lindsey (Nolechek’) Fox told USDA, ‘No thanks.’ USDA didn’t like that.
The agency sent a letter last week and ordered Nolechek’s employees to either wear a mask or USDA would withhold its inspection of Nolechek’s prize-winning meats. Without an inspection, the meat processor was locked out of the wholesale side of its business. USDA says it could do so because the meats are distributed across state lines.
“…If we produced any product with the mark of inspection going forward, it would be considered adulterated and a recall would be initiated,” Fox said.
USDA’s authority? Apparently based on Centers for Disease Control & Prevention guidance, not law or inspection rules. Nolechek’s appeal notes USDA did not go through the rule-making process in pushing the mask mandate.
“Coercion is not choice,” Fox said.
So 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 Clark County 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.
“We have team members to think about, we have workers with families they support,” Fox said, adding that Nolechek’s is trying to appeal the ruling.
U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) has been in contact with Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack to ask why USDA is acting so heavy handedly.
Fox said each federal government agent involved has told the owners the same thing: they understand, but they are just doing their jobs. It came to the point, she said, that it was time to stand up and share the business’ story — because it’s not just Nolechek’s story. It’s the story of so many small businesses and individual citizens in the pandemic era.
“We have the right to be heard and not dismissed as crazy conspiracy theorists or anti-government lunatics. Because what is coming next are Federal vaccine mandates and we cannot ask our employees to submit to something they don’t believe in,” Fox said. “And when they all quit, who will be left to work? It took us five months to find someone to fill a vacancy that had been open since March.”