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.”