Ranchers heated over recall

The U.S. Department of Agriculture remained mostly silent this week about why it conducted a yearlong, 8.7-million pound recall of products distributed from Petaluma slaughterhouse Rancho Feeding Corporation, which the federal agency said were not properly inspected.

Meanwhile, questions continued to plague local ranchers and meat distributors, who claim their recalled meat was not tainted or diseased.

"I don't know how this can happen if there's a meat inspector on site," said Chileno Valley Ranch owner and Petaluma resident Mike Gale. "This comes as a huge surprise. And no one knows what happened. I heard about it in the news — it's this big expose — but we don't know anything. And the silence is hurting the industry. Not just Rancho (Feeding Corp.) or local ranchers, but the whole industry is hurting from this."

Repeated calls and attempts to contact Rancho Feeding Corp. owners Jesse "Babe" Amaral and Robert Singleton were not returned.

Rancho Feeding Corp. was the subject of two U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service recalls this past month. The first occurred on Jan. 13, when federal agents raided the slaughterhouse and recalled 41,683 pounds of beef products reportedly produced on Jan. 8. After further investigation, the USDA expanded its recall to encompass more than a year's worth of beef products that were shipped with the USDA seal of approval to distribution and retail centers in California, Florida, Illinois and Texas. To date, there are no reports of anyone becoming ill after eating the meat.

Since the expanded recall, Rancho Feeding Corp. temporarily closed its door 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 Tuesday. 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.

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 Tuesday that the federal agency does not yet know if any animals were diseased.

"We're trying to piece everything together still," said the spokesperson who refused to be named. "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. As the North Bay's only USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, by law all meat products must be inspected after the animal is slaughtered. It appears that shouldn't have been difficult to accomplish, since the USDA inspector's office site directly across the parking lot from the Rancho Feeding's main office. The slaughterhouse is reportedly required to have anywhere from one to three 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 why a year's worth of meat products were released into the food supply without the full federal inspection has yet to be explained by the USDA.

No one at the USDA could estimate how long the federal investigation would take to complete.

Gale, who runs a small grass-fed beef farm with his wife, Sally, said Monday that 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."

Gale said that three of his steers were a part of that initial recalled group — animals he knew to be of good health and free of disease, raised and processed to proper health and safety standards.

"When you bring an animal in to be slaughtered, they inspect it right away," said an angry Gale. "They will tell you immediately if there is a problem with your animal. The three steers I brought in had no problems."

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.

"These barrage of accusations against Rancho is really mind-blowing and ridiculous," he said.

Matt Gamba, who owns Bud's Meats in Penngrove, said he too had very little information on the recall.

"We know the investigation is ongoing, but we still haven't heard anything as to why the recall really occurred," he said.

As the slaughterhouse doors remain closed, Gale and other ranchers worry about the effects to their businesses.

"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. "

Rancho serves Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties as the only federally-inspected animal processing plant, with the exception of a small sheep and goat facility near Occidental. The Petaluma slaughterhouse caters to local grass-fed and organic beef ranchers, like Chileno Valley Farms, who rely on Rancho to kill their animals and then sell their meat products through restaurants, markets and farmers markets.

A partial list of companies asked to return meat connected to the recall includes 13 local retailers: Bud's Meats in Penngrove; G&G Market in Petaluma and Santa Rosa; Petaluma Market; Carniceria Coalcoman, Carniceria Contreras, Carolina Wild and Willowside Meats in Santa Rosa; Sonoma Market in Sonoma; Brown's Valley Market, La Morenita and Vallergas Market in Napa; Apple Market in Novato; and Azteca Market in San Rafael.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com.)