OXFORD — Reports of meat shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic bring to mind the Mississippi beef plant scandal of nearly two decades ago.

During the administration of Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove — back when the late Billy McCoy was speaker of the House with Democrats in control — the plant was conceived as a boon for the cull cow market in North Mississippi.

Among its boosters were McCoy, Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell and Reps. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, and Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston.

Instead of a boon, it turned out to be a boondoggle.

The beef plant closed in August 2004, three months after it opened, because of design flaws, failed equipment and a lack of operating capital.

Mississippi taxpayers were left with a $55 million debt, and several people involved in building, equipping and operating the plant went to jail on various charges, including fraud and, in the case of two defendants, making illegal political campaign contributions. Musgrove came under criticism for accepting campaign contributions from the pair, but he never was charged, and he never admitted any wrongdoing.

In retrospect and compared to far bigger ripoffs of taxpayer money since then, the beef plant, as smelly as it was, wasn’t as bad a deal as it sounded for several years, during which opponents of the politicians who supported it used it as an example of wasteful spending and government malfeasance.

Who knows? Maybe if the equipment hadn’t been faulty and the plant worked as projected, there would be a little more beef on the shelves these days, as well as a better market for Mississippi cattle.

Then, again, maybe it, like a lot of other businesses, would have shut down during the COVID-19 quarantine.

But the reality is that although there is no beef-processing plant in the small town of Oakland in Yalobusha County, there is a food-processing operation in what originally was the beef plant.

After being shuttered for a few years, the 140,000-square-foot facility was sold to Windsor Foods of Houston, Texas, retooled and reopened in 2007. The company first employed 250 people but added jobs in both 2010 and 2013.

In 2014, Windsor Foods was bought by Ajinomoto, a Japanese company that markets specialty frozen foods for consumers, commercial restaurants and food service operators.

A January 2018 article in the Mississippi Business Journal quoted the general manager as saying the plant employed more than 400 people.

Mississippi Today, in a July 2017 article, compared the beef plant boondoggle to Mississippi Power Co.’s failed lignite coal gasification plant in Kemper County.

The price tag on that failed venture was $7.5 billion, or what one critic called “10, 12 or 15” beef plants.

Among the backers of the Kemper County project was former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, whose lobbying firm represented Mississippi Power’s parent company.

Unlike granting a loan, as was done for the beef plant, the Mississippi Legislature passed an act in 2008 allowing utilities such as Mississippi Power to raise customers’ rates while a power plant is under construction. The federal government also kicked in $682 million in subsidies.

Another scandal, this one current, that also dwarfs the beef plant is the alleged welfare fraud perpetrated during Gov. Phil Bryant’s administration by one of his appointees.

State Auditor Shad White is questioning how $94 million, which was supposed to help poor people, was spent by two nonprofits that received the grants from the Department of Human Services. A chunk of it was clearly misspent on luxury cars, sports tournaments, questionable hirings and other misappropriations, according to White, and for the rest his auditors could not verify the expenditures were legal.

So, the passing years aren’t the only thing diminishing the beef plant scandal. It just doesn’t seem as big a deal judged in the light of more recent ones, including the Mississippi Department of Corrections kickbacks.

It seems like during any administration, the taxpayers can legitimately come up with something to beef about.

 • Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.

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