Hardwoods Deer Processing is under investigation following allegations of keeping rancid meat in its cooler.
LEESBURG, Ga. — Lee County's Code Enforcement office and officials with the Department of Natural Resources are conducting an ongoing investigation into a Lee County deer processing business that has been operating for months without a valid business license and is said to be storing contaminated deer meat with meat it is processing for customers' consumption.
Chief Lee County Marshal/Code Enforcement Officer Jim Wright confirmed Tuesday that his office and rangers with the DNR's Albany office are investigating Hardwoods Deer Processing on Philema Road. Wright said he's already cited owner Christopher McLendon and manager Joseph Aldridge for operating without a business license, and he said the DNR is investigating charges of tainted meat being stored at the facility.
"After talking with the owner we gave them additional time to get a valid business license, but that time ran out Dec. 28," Wright said. "When I observed that the business was still operating without a license, I cited the store's owner. When I saw that the store was still open (Tuesday) without a license, I cited the manager.
"I have no authority under Lee County code to close the business, but I have the option of citing them every day they continue to operate without a business license. The maximum fine for the offense is $500 and 10 days in jail for each citation."
DNR Cpl. Al Greer confirmed Tuesday that he had inspected Hardwoods on Tuesday but refused to talk about the specifics of the investigation.
"We still haven't talked with the owner of the facility, so our investigation is ongoing" Greer told The Herald. "Now is not the time to talk about possible penalties; we've got to complete our investigation and run this up the chain of command."
Wright said, however, that DNR officials who had inspected the facility found "rancid, foul-smelling meat" in Hardwoods' cooler alongside meat it was processing for customers and "blowflies all over the place."
Calls to a number given for Aldridge Tuesday were not answered, and his phone had no voice mail set up.
Wright said Hardwoods officials had applied for a business license just before the start of the current deer hunting season (Sept. 10), but an inspection by Lee Fire Department officials turned up electrical problems that had to be addressed before a license could be awarded.
When Wright discovered Hardwoods was operating without a license, he gave McLendon, who resides in Harris County, until Dec. 28 to get the electrical problems fixed and obtain a license. When he did not do so, Wright issued a citation.
"We have a great working relationship with DNR, and any time we have an an issue related to wildlife, we contact them," Wright said. "(A DNR official) who first inspected the facility told me when he walked in he was almost knocked down by the foul, rancid smell. He asked the owner about the smell, and (McLendon) admitted to him that the coolers had malfunctioned over the Christmas holidays.
"I was told that there was rancid, spoiled meat hanging in the cooler with meat that was being processed for customers."
Wright said he contacted Environmental Health officals but was informed that any issue pertaining to wildlife was under Natural Resources jurisdiction.
Both McLendon and Aldridge are scheduled to appear in Lee Magistrate's Court on Feb. 7 to answer to the citations.
"We've tried to work with these folks, and we will continue to do so," Wright said. "That's the way we operate this office. And I will say that when I went by there (Tuesday), they were actively cleaning up the place.
"But the big picture here is the health concern for citizens of the county."