Feds break silence on Rancho meat recall

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has finally given a reason for its enormous recall of beef products from Rancho Feeding Corp., accusing the Petaluma slaughterhouse of dodging federal inspection rules.

In a terse statement, released Thursday after weeks of silence, the agency alleged that despite the presence of USDA inspectors at Rancho “during normal operations as required by law,” the company engaged in “intermittent circumvention of inspection requirements.”

A USDA spokesman would not elaborate, citing an ongoing investigation, but the agency did post on its website a list of specific contaminated products that contained only organs and other offal, no actual cuts of beef.

On that same day, however, a ray of hope emerged for local ranchers with the announcement of the possible purchase of the slaughterhouse by a Bay Area meat producer.

Issues with Rancho first came to light in January, after federal agents raided the plant and recalled 41,683 pounds of beef products. Then on Feb. 8 the recall – conducted by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS – expanded dramatically, encompassing “approximately 8,742,700 pounds” of beef products because, the agency stated, Rancho “processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection.”

The agency called it a “Class I” recall, meaning there was a “reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.” The USDA has received no reports of illness connected with Rancho products.

Rancho voluntarily shut down in response to the recall, amid uproar from local ranchers who rely on its processing services. Last week, company owner Robert Singleton vehemently denied the government’s allegations, telling the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, “There was always an inspector on the property,” and, “We never harvested without an inspector on site.”

As the North Bay’s only USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, Rancho’s closure was a big problem for the region’s ranchers, who otherwise have to truck their cattle to the Central Valley for processing. But another development, also announced Thursday, could mark a solution: a bid to purchase the slaughterhouse by Marin Sun Farms, a well-respected “farm-to-table” meat producer based in San Francisco.

That’s good news for Sonoma County’s $12.3 million cattle industry, which was bracing for a major shakeup due to the closure.

Industry experts say Rancho’s owners – Singleton and Jesse “Babe” Amaral – will be hard-pressed to survive the recall, leaving small ranchers with few options.

David Evans, founder and CEO of Marin Sun Farms, said he is buying the plant because high-quality, grass-fed beef producers in the region depend on it.

The same brief USDA statement from Thursday confirmed the intended purchase, adding, “FSIS will review the application in accordance with our regulations and policies to ensure the firm meets requirements.”

The 8.7 million pounds of beef products to be recalled were shipped – with the USDA seal of approval – to more than 1,600 food distributors in the United States and Canada throughout 2013.

The latest update on the recall, posted on the FSIS website, lists the specific products deemed “unfit for human food,” and all of it appears to be parts of the animal other than cuts of beef:

• “Beef Carcasses” (wholesale and custom sales only)

• 2 per box “Beef (Market) Heads” (retail only)

• 4-gallons per box “Beef Blood” (wholesale only)

• 20-pound boxes of “Beef Oxtail”

• 30-pound boxes of “Beef Cheeks”

• 30-pound boxes of “Beef Lips”

• 30-pound boxes of “Beef Omasum”

• 30-pound boxes of “Beef Tripas”

• 30-pound boxes of “Mountain Oysters

• 30-pound boxes of “Sweet Breads”

• 30- and 60-pound boxes of “Beef Liver”

• 30- and 60-pound boxes of “Beef Tripe”

• 30- and 60-pound boxes of “Beef Tongue”

• 30- and 60-pound boxes of “Veal Cuts”

• 40-pound boxes of “Veal Bones”

• 50-pound boxes of “Beef Feet”

• 50-pound boxes of “Beef Hearts”

• 60-pound boxes of “Veal Trim”

The “omasum” is a stomach chamber. “Mountain oysters” refer to the animal’s testicles, and “sweet breads” refer to thymus or pancreas glands.

According to reports, the recall has snared frozen food products such as Hot Pockets and Walmart burger patties – shedding light, perhaps, on what goes into those foods.