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The USDA's description of the meat in question is telling, said Seattle attorney Bill Marler, a specialist in food safety cases.

"The words used — 'diseased' and 'unsound' — usually what that means is that there were animals that were non-ambulatory, they were downers, with visible defects, and that somehow they made it on to the kill floor without inspection," said Marler, who publishes Food Safety News, an online news site.

The federal food inspector assigned to Rancho repeatedly questioned the practices inside the plant over a five-month period prior to November, according to Carney and Painter.

"She was speaking out and exposing that there were problems," Carney said.

He declined to reveal the inspector's name or provide copies of the documents detailing her accounts. He said the documents include correspondence between the inspector and her supervising veterinarian, and a sheaf of complaints about the inspector made by Rancho management to the USDA. He summarized her allegations in a series of interviews with The Press Democrat.

The USDA has not yet responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Press Democrat for inspection reports and other records related to the Rancho plant.

The food inspector alleged that her supervisor, a USDA public health veterinarian assigned to Rancho, was approving dairy cow carcasses that she believed should have been rejected, Carney said.

"She thought he was passing carcasses that were questionable," he said.

"She would tag animals for the PHV (public health veterinarian) and what she thought sometimes were cancerous, the vet would pass," he said. "And she can't question the vet."

The food inspector also said that her supervising veterinarian ignored many alleged violations of federal regulations that she had identified and brought to his attention, Carney said. The veterinarian refused to write up many of the alleged violations or allow her to write the noncompliance reports, Carney said.

"He didn't want them, so he didn't authorize her to write too many," he said.

In one incident, Carney said, the food inspector reported that water was blasted into a calf's nostrils to make it more compliant. That would be considered inhumane treatment under slaughter guidelines, said Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University animal science professor who wrote the American Meat Institute's guidelines for humane slaughter and handling.

In another incident at Rancho, Carney said, a dairy cow had not been properly rendered unconscious before it was hung from a hook to bleed out. The inspector asked employees to remove the animal from the hook but they instead reportedly shot it with a bolt gun several more times to stun it, Carney said.

"Which is not a bad thing by itself, but it should be more controlled, damn it," he said.

The inspector also raised alarms about improper discharges of plant wastewater into nearby fields, Carney said.

The USDA reassigned the inspector to another plant in November, Carney said. The veterinarian assigned to Rancho retired within the last two months, the union leader said. He does not know the full name of the veterinarian, he said.

A USDA spokesman would not comment on the allegations described by Carney, saying they were personnel matters. He declined to identify the inspector or her supervising veterinarian.

"I have no idea and we would not comment on it either way," said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Carney said the food inspector would not agree to an interview because she was fearful of retaliation by her employer. He declined to name her, saying she has asked him not to.

He said he has documents buttressing her account of her actions but he could not make them available until the inspector decides how to proceed.

The Petaluma slaughterhouse ceased operations in early February as it wrestled with the recall effort, which its owners said was pursued out of an "abundance of caution." The plant is now being sold to Marin Sun Farms, a gourmet meat producer.

Since January 2012, there have been at least 12 other recalls of meat products that did not receive complete inspections, according to FSIS records and Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C. The Rancho Feeding recall is by far the largest.