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.