USDA FSIF Investigates Rancho Feeding for Selling Cattle with Eye Cancer

Sources: Ricardo Lopez, Los Angeles Times; Jeremy Hay, The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa), with Staff Writer Robert Digitale.

Rancho Feeding Corp., the Bay Area slaughterhouse that recalled nearly 9 million pounds of beef products last month, sold some meat that came from cows with eye cancer, according to documents, follow-up correspondence and inspection reports obtained by the Los Angeles Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a Jan. 14 suspension letter, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service said that an investigation of Rancho Feeding showed the company sold cattle “likely affected with epithelioma of the eye,” and tolerated unsanitary conditions at the slaughterhouse. Less than a month later, the recall was expanded to include a year’s worth of beef — 8.7 million pounds.

Regulators said they found two cattle heads with cancer that had made it to market showing no signs they had been inspected. The cattle heads did not have the USDA’s mark of condemnation, which would prevent them from being sold, the letter said. They also had intact lymph nodes, which normally would be dissected for inspection. Federal law prohibits the sale of diseased animals for human consumption.

A Press Democrat (Santa Rosa) reported a source said federal officials believe someone at Rancho devised a way to get the carcasses of cancerous cows past a USDA supervising veterinarian, obtain USDA certification for distribution and sell the meat under the Rancho brand. The USDA has not released names of the inspector or veterinarian assigned to Rancho Feeding.

Back in August, an inspector noticed fecal contamination on a carcass. A month before, an inspector noted an excessive number of flies in the slaughterhouse. Other infractions included unsanitary practices by slaughterhouse employees such as failure to properly disinfect surfaces and sanitize knives.

Regulators have been aggressive in investigating the company, which they have accused of processing and selling “diseased and unsound animals” without a full federal inspection. In a rare move, the USDA’s inspector general has launched an investigation looking for evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Rancho Feeding.

Despite the regulatory investigation, the allegations of wrongdoing and the closure and sale of the company, there have been no reported illnesses linked to the company’s meat. Food experts said consumers are unlikely to get sick from eating the beef.

Rancho Feeding, the last slaughterhouse in the Bay Area, is cooperating with federal investigators, and the owner released a statement that he is, “very sorry for any impact that this situation has caused to his customers and the meat-buying public.”

Rancho Feeding was recently bought by Marin Sun Farms, an artisanal Marin County farm specializing in pasture-raised livestock.