Are criminal charges coming in Rancho recall?

Following allegations that Rancho Feeding Corp. "intermittently circumvented" required inspections, criminal charges could be pending against the proprietors as the U.S. Attorney's Office launched its own investigation this week, marking the third federal body to probe the now shuttered Petaluma slaughterhouse.

The investigation appears to deal with operations that occurred at the slaughterhouse without the presence of a federal inspector, but all of the agencies involved have refused to comment on any specifics of the case, much to the chagrin of local officials.

"Prosecutors talk about pending litigation all the time. They do it in a way where people know what's going on without talking specifics of the case," said a frustrated Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, as he questioned why the federal agencies were being so tight-lipped on the recall. He is working with Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, to press the federal agencies for more transparency.

Owners Jesse "Babe" Amaral and Robert Singleton have largely declined to comment on the matter, but have made plans to sell the business to longtime customer David Evans of Marin Suns Farm, who will open the slaughterhouse on a new federal permit once the investigations are completed. In the meantime, questions continue to plague the ranching community, some of whom are hopeful there is a way to salvage some of the products that were included in the yearlong recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef.

The Rancho Feeding Corp. recall, which was first announced Feb. 8 and expanded on Feb. 14, has affected more than 2,000 businesses from Petaluma ranches to national retailers such as Wal-Mart, all across the United States and Canada. It includes all meat processed at the Petaluma plant between January 2013 and January 2014. USDA initially said that the slaughterhouse processed "diseased or unsound" animals without the required federal inspections, before adding charges in a statement last week that the business "intermittently circumvented" inspections over the past year. To date, no illnesses have been reported from the recalled meat.

Some local ranchers remain adamant that the animals they brought to Rancho Feeding Corp. were in good health and did pass full inspection. "I have the paperwork to prove it," lamented Tara Smith of Tara Firma Farms, which had approximately 100 cattle slaughtered at Rancho Feeding Corp. last year. "Our cows weren't involved in this at all. Both the USDA and the vet signed off on our cows."

Like many ranchers, Smith was required to notify all of her customers of her prime cut grass-fed beef business about the recall, but said only two asked for refunds. Her business is footing the bill and paying back those customers while they wait for the investigation to conclude. She is hopeful she may be able to sell some of the refunded beef for use in dog food, which has different regulations than meat for human consumption.

Smith explained that the slaughterhouse processed two types of cows. There was the top quality beef raised by ranchers, many of whom stayed through the inspection and slaughter process before collecting their cuts, which they sell direct to consumers such as high-end restaurants. Rancho also processed older dairy cows that no longer produced milk, which the slaughterhouse bought from local dairies before selling the meat for anything from hamburger patties to pet food.

All meat handled by the slaughterhouse during the past year was included in the recall, a fact that is rubbing both ranchers and local officials the wrong way. Huffman said if Rancho did something inappropriate, "that needs to be dealt with" but added that the slaughterhouse's customers shouldn't be penalized for the company's alleged misdoings. "When you talk to the reputable ranchers like Bill Niman, they did nothing wrong here. The public needs to remember that," Huffman said.

Niman's Marin County based BN Ranch had more than 100,000 pounds of beef processed at Rancho Feeding, with a retail value of more than $300,000 — products he contends are perfectly safe for sale because his workers watched the processing and ensured the pre- and post-mortem inspections took place. Huffman said he and Thompson personally reached out to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Monday to connect him with with Niman to determine if there is any way producers can prove that their meat is fit for sale.

Jeremy Russell, spokesman for the North American Meat Association, said he was unaware of any cases in which a producer was able to sell recalled products.

"Once something is recalled, it's considered unfit for sale," he said.

If the meat can't be sold, it could mean substantial loses for the producers, Smith said. "A $300,000 hit, that's hard to recover from," she said of BN Ranch. "And there's no insurance for this."

Many ranchers have asked how, for an entire year, meat could leave the slaughterhouse with an official USDA inspection stamp if inspections weren't taking place. Especially since a USDA inspector has an office located directly across the yard from the slaughterhouse.

"There's at least one, and sometimes three, inspectors in the plant," said Mike Gale of Chileno Valley Ranch in Petaluma, which had around 90 cows processed at the plant last year. "I don't know how that can happen if there's a meat inspector on site."

With little information from the federal agencies involved, ranchers are left with feelings of frustration.

"There's a criminal accusation that's been made, they (the government bodies) should be required to say what it is," Smith said. "The handling of this has been abysmal."

She said the only silver lining is that Evans and Marin Sun Farms will take over the operation, with his own USDA permit, and continue to provide a place for local ranchers to have their beef processed once the investigations have concluded. Without that option, beef ranchers would have to pay to truck their animals to the Central Valley, which would prove cost prohibitive for many small ranches.

"(Evans) knows what he's doing," said Smith. "He'll be fabulous."

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@arguscourier.com)