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He said that the USDA shouldn't have denied the ranchers' requests without first explaining clearly what went on at Rancho and allowing the producers the chance to make an informed case for why their beef remains safe for human consumption.

"It's not reasonable to say, 'We reject your argument' without giving even a scintilla of information about what happened," Huffman said.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said that "I feel terrible for the farmers," but the regulators are following a process designed to ensure food safety. As part of that process, Engeljohn even came out here to personally hear the ranchers' appeals, Thompson said.

"I am not going to get in the way of protecting public safety and consumer health," he said.

Still, he said, what happened wasn't the ranchers' fault, and he remains committed to helping them seek compensation from the slaughterhouse.

"I think Rancho is liable for any loss that these farmers incur," Thompson said.

Engeljohn met March 7 in an east Petaluma boardroom with ranchers and representatives of elected officials, including Huffman, Thompson and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The ranchers argued fervently that their meat, processed on different days than the dairy cows at the center of the controversy, could not have been cross-contaminated.

"It's never in the same room on the same day. We're all Thursday people," said Smith.

But they left with scant hope.

Engeljohn "said he was happy to hear all the information so he could go back and present it," Smith said, "but he said there was deception, absolute deception, and because of that the chances of it being released are slim to none."

It's not known how many custom ranchers are affected. Smith said there were five or six, including herself and Niman, at the March 7 meeting.

Among producers, Niman has disclosed the largest amount of beef in his company's freezers, roughly 100,000 pounds. But several other ranchers also have stored frozen meat.

They include David Evans, the owner of Marin Sun Farms, who recently purchased the former Rancho facility. Evans last month told KQED radio that "we have a whole lot of meat that's in our freezer" and its destruction would be "a massive loss."

Leftcoast Grassfed of Pescadero in San Mateo County has 3,000 pounds of recalled beef in its freezers, said director Kathy Webster.

To kill the cattle and then dispose of it in a landfill is "a travesty," Webster said. "I stand 100 percent behind that meat."

Amaral's partner, Robert Singleton, called the FSIS decision "a crime."

"They're not doing their job," he said. "That meat is 100 percent wholesome."

Asked if Rancho would be liable for all the ranchers' recalled meat, he said, "That I don't know."