Beef recall leaves ranchers in a lurch

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is continuing its near-silence regarding an 8.7-million-pound recall of products distributed from Rancho Feeding Corporation, a Petaluma slaughterhouse supplying grass-fed beef to many local retailers.

But local cattle ranchers are not so quiet about it.

The North Bay’s only USDA-inspected slaughterhouse has voluntarily closed its doors as a result of the double-recall. The first closure came in January after federal agents raided the slaughterhouse and recalled 41,683 pounds of beef products reportedly produced on Jan. 8. A month later, after further investigation, the USDA expanded its recall to encompass more than a year’s worth of beef products – totaling 8.7 million pounds – that were shipped with the USDA seal of approval to distribution and retail centers in California, Florida, Illinois and Texas.

Details on the case against Rancho are contradictory and hard to come by. To date, there are no reports of anyone becoming ill after eating the meat.

Since the expanded recall, Rancho Feeding Corp. says it has worked to track down the recalled products, and a federal investigation of the slaughterhouse’s practices – conducted by the USDA Office of the Inspector General – was announced Feb. 11. But other than a vague explanation from the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, little is known about the circumstances that led to the massive recall.

Rancho Feeding Corp. owners Jesse “Babe” Amaral and Robert Singleton have not commented publicly on the recent events.

Meanwhile, experts say the plant’s owners will be hard-pressed to survive the recall, and that it is certain to cause a major shakeup to the county’s $12.3 million cattle industry.

“In our experience, a large percentage of these very small slaughter plants end up going out of business because they can’t survive a big shutdown for an extended period of time,” said Dena Jones, of the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., in an interview with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

That the USDA has directed its Office of the Inspector General to investigate the Petaluma processor adds to the seriousness, experts said, as that office typically doesn’t get involved in meat recalls.

Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, told the Press Democrat that small-scale operators are the ones who will be hurt most by the recall. Many of these niche ranchers – who provide premium grass-fed beef to high-end restaurants and other local customers – “were able to start their businesses because Rancho was here,” he said.

Glenn Mohring, a local rancher with about 400 head of cattle in the Tolay Lake and Jamieson Canyon regions, agrees that Rancho’s closure will hurt grass-fed cattle ranchers throughout the county and Northern California.

Rancho served as a “custom slaughterhouse” for such ranchers, he said, and “that’s the only place around.”

Because the USDA has released so few details on its case against Rancho, Mohring didn’t know specifically what brought about the recall. But from his perspective it looked like overreach.

“The way I saw it, all the animals were inspected before slaughter and all that, but just certain boxes that went out weren’t double-stamped or something.”

As for implications that the meat was diseased or tainted: “I don’t see how that could be, being that they were inspected before slaughter.”

“It almost seems like it was the USDA’s screw-up more than Rancho itself.”

According to a USDA spokesperson, Class I recalls such as this are triggered when meat is not properly inspected. Even though USDA press releases related to both recalls referenced “diseased and unsound animals,” the USDA representative said the federal agency does not yet know if any animals were diseased.

“We’re trying to piece everything together still,” the spokesperson, who refused to be named, told the Petaluma Argus-Courier. “Because we know the products went out without the benefit of a full inspection, we’re recalling them out of an abundance of caution. But we can’t comment on the ongoing inspector general’s investigation.”

How the meat products were distributed without a full inspection remains unknown. The USDA inspector’s office sits across the parking lot from Rancho’s main office, and the slaughterhouse is required to have inspectors on the premises during all operating hours.

According to federal Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines, USDA inspectors are responsible for conducting carcass-by-carcass inspections themselves. Slaughterhouse facilities cannot kill animals without FSIS personnel being present, and inspections are supposed to take place at the time an animal is brought in and after it is killed. FSIS protocol states that no carcasses are allowed to enter the food supply until inspected and approved by the FSIS inspection personnel.

So how a year’s worth of meat products were released into the food supply without full federal inspection has yet to be explained by the USDA.No one at the agency would estimate how long the federal investigation would take to complete.

Mike Gale, owner of Chileno Valley Ranch west of Petaluma, angrily denies that the recalled meat was tainted or diseased.

“I don’t know how this can happen if there’s a meat inspector on site,” Gale said in an interview with the Argus-Courier. “This comes as a huge surprise. And no one knows what happened.”

He added, “The silence is hurting the industry. Not just Rancho or local ranchers, but the whole industry is hurting from this.”

Gale said he was present at the slaughterhouse when the first federal raid took place in January.

“The agents had a long, open truck with 15 or 16 guys in white butcher aprons, throwing quartered carcasses into a loader and spraying them with grey dye to show they were contaminated,” said Gale. “It was very upsetting because there was nothing wrong with the meat.”

Rancho serves Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, catering to local grass-fed and organic beef ranchers who rely on the Petaluma plant to kill their animals and then sell the meat products through restaurants, markets and farmers markets.

“Rancho is a very valuable resource and an intricate part of the ranching community,” said Gale. “If they stay closed, we’d be very hard-pressed to figure out what to do. There are places we could take our steers to in the Central Valley, but the trucking costs would kill us.”

Gale, who takes about 80 animals to the slaughterhouse each year, said that in the 16 years he’s brought animals to Rancho Feeding Corp., he’s never had any issues with contamination, inhumane kills or processing diseased meat.

“This barrage of accusations against Rancho is really mind-blowing and ridiculous,” he said.

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Janelle Wetzstein of the Petaluma Argus-Courier and Robert Digitale of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat contributed to this report.