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.


Rancho Feeding Corp. Voluntarily Ceases Operations


Credit goes to: Jamie Hansen, Heather Irwin, The Press Democrat; FSIS


Rancho Feeding Corporation, a Petaluma slaughterhouse at the center of a growing Class I recall, has voluntarily ceased operations while it attempts to track down and retrieve every shipment of beef from the facility over the past year.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the expanded recall on Saturday, saying Rancho “processed diseased and unsound animals” without a full inspection. The meat products are “unsound, unwholesome or otherwise are unfit for human food” and must be removed from commerce, according to the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.


Beef carcasses and boxes were labeled with establishment number “est. 527” inside the USDA mark of inspection and the case code number ending in 3 or 4. The products were produced Jan. 1, 2013 through Jan. 7, 2014 and shipped to distribution centers and retail establishments in California, Florida, Illinois and Texas.


To date, there have been no reported cases of illness from eating the meat.


A company spokesperson told California Ag Today that the establishment was making no public statements; all information could be found at The Press Democrat, Petaluma.


According to The Press Democrat, Robert Singleton, who owns Rancho with partner Jesse “Babe” Amaral, on Monday night said the company undertook the recall out of “an abundance of caution” and regrets any inconvenience to customers.


Singleton confirmed the company had voluntarily ceased processing and was compiling a list of affected companies. He declined further comment.


The enormous scale of the recall, the second recall at the facility in less than a month, raised questions about the future of the North Bay’s last beef processing facility and set off criticism of federal regulators by local ranchers who rely on Rancho Feeding Corp. to slaughter their cattle.


The facility is the only USDA-inspected animal processing facility in Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Lake and Mendocino counties, with the exception of a small plant for sheep and goats near Occidental. The plant serves a growing, high-end beef market, including grass-fed and organic cattle. Those ranchers use Rancho to kill their animals and take the carcasses for butchering and sale via markets, restaurants and farmers markets. As well, Rancho buys and slaughters older dairy cattle.


The 8.7-million pounds of recalled meat is much larger than other meat-related recalls issued across the country this month, which range from 365 to 144,000 pounds. But it is considerably smaller than the largest recall on record: In 2008, the California-based Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company recalled 143 million pounds.


The investigation into the meat processed at Rancho Feeding Corp., which in the past was known as Rancho Veal Corp., is ongoing, according to the Inspection Service. There are numerous steps involved in slaughtering an animal, and federal inspectors must be present to ensure that the animal is killed in a humane matter and that it does not show signs of disease. It is not yet clear which part of the process inspectors missed, if the plant’s operations will be suspended as they were in January, or how long the investigation will continue.


Over the years, Rancho Veal has been targeted by animal rights activists. Police in 2000 said arsonists set fires at the plant and at two poultry operations also in Sonoma County. That same year, animal rights activists demonstrated outside Rancho Veal.


Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar commented that without the plant, “our producers would be really hard-pressed to stay in business.” 


Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, called that fact a good sign and said he was surprised to hear about the scale of this recall. “From what I’ve heard they make a great product,” he said. “This is very puzzling.”


Local dairy rancher and former president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau board of directors, Doug Beretta said the plant’s closure impacted some local ranchers, who were forced to truck their cattle about 2 1/2 hours away to slaughterhouses in Los Banos and Modesto.


Tesconi and Beretta both said that a prolonged closure could pose a real hardship for small local ranchers who rely on the facility. Tesconi said that the Farm Bureau supports the desire of the U.C. Cooperative Extension and others to see additional local USDA-inspected facilities arrive to meet the need of “the growing number of small growers doing grass-fed beef.”


Some North Bay ranchers and meat purveyors also questioned the logic behind the far-reaching recall, given that most of the beef was long ago consumed and there are no reports of anyone becoming ill after eating the beef.


“There should have been no recall,” said Tara Smith, owner of Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma.


Smith was among the producers directly affected from the original Jan. 13 recall by Rancho. She estimated she lost about $8,000 worth of organically raised beef that she claimed was raised and processed according to proper health and safety procedures.


“The extensive publicity was unfair not only to Rancho but also to the many producers who now have to inform their customers of the recall,” Smith said.


Longtime cattle buyer Ken Maffei of Petaluma said he has known Amaral and Singleton for 35 years and the two men would not knowingly slaughter diseased or unsound animals.


“Show me evidence,” Maffei demanded. “It’s all hearsay.”


He contended that federal regulators were “overdoing it to the max” with a yearlong recall.


Adam Parks, owner of Victorian Farmstead Meat Company in Sebastopol, said he couldn’t understand the logic of a yearlong recall because nearly all the meat already has been consumed. Nonetheless, he will reach out to customers who purchased grass-fed cattle that he had processed at Rancho during the affected dates.


Parks, who purchases cattle from ranchers, acknowledged it will be “an incredible expense and inconvenience” if Rancho closes and he has to ship all his beef to Eureka or the Central Valley for processing. Even so, he insisted such a closure wouldn’t be the death knell for the North Coast beef industry.


“We’ll survive it,” Parks said.