Richard Whitmarsh, director of Sioux Nation Superstore, in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, has responded publicly to charges of spoiled-meat sales that closed down first the store’s meat department on Friday, May 4, then the entire privately operated, 50-employee business a week later. The problems began after an Oglala Sioux Tribe member purchased meat that was “said to be spoiled,” according to Whitmarsh. The meat was not tested and proven to be tainted, he noted, and the Indian Health Service reported no incidents of food poisoning at the time.
However, the bad-meat report kicked off an official Indian Health Service inspection of the store on May 3, according to tribal public-relations coordinator Donna Salomon, Oglala. The inspectors, including Joe Amiotte, IHS supervisory sanitarian, uncovered numerous violations, including dirty conditions, meat stored at improper temperatures and outdated, spoiled meat relabeled as fresh. This resulted in the tribe immediately shutting down the store’s meat department, Salomon said.
Within a few days, the meat department and its processing equipment had been “deep cleaned” and the violations corrected, said Whitmarsh, adding that the tribe’s health department confirmed this, then allowed the store to start selling meat again under a temporary permit. The store agreed to provide legally required food-service training for relevant employees during the 30-day interim period.
However, exasperated tribal members apparently felt that these measures were not sufficient. On the morning of Friday, May 11, a crowd gathered to protest sales of bad meat at Sioux Nation Superstore. “There must have been about 100 people,” said a tribal member, who asked not to be identified. “Elders said people had been getting sick from spoiled meat. They wanted to shut down the whole thing, not just the meat department. No one wants this store open.” Illnesses, seemingly after eating bad meat, had been occurring with some frequency on the reservation, he said.
The protesters conferred with Oglala Sioux Nation President John Yellowbird Steele, claiming the store had lost all credibility and could not be trusted to obey state and federal health laws, said Debra White Plume, Oglala. After hearing out the group, Steele decided there was a potential for a serious breach of the peace and obtained from the tribal court a temporary order closing down the entire store at 5 pm on the 11th, according to Salomon. It is not clear when or under what circumstances the order will be lifted. Whitmarsh said that if there are concerns about civil order, he is “committed” to a shutdown.
White Plume added that she did not shop at Sioux Nation Superstore because of its high prices, a long-standing complaint on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which has few full-service grocery stores. She accused the store’s managers of making “a deliberate decision” to repackage and re-label old, spoiled meat as fresh. “It breaks my heart,” said White Plume.
For Whitmarsh’s part, he pledged himself to “get all issues resolved in a timely fashion.”