Most Rancho beef went to fast food chain

Much of the beef from Rancho Feeding Corp., the Petaluma slaughterhouse that had to recall all the meat it produced last year, ended up in hamburgers sold by fast food giant Jack in the Box, according to a letter from the plant's manager to the federal government.

The beef also ended up in the products of other fast food chains. Those companies, as well as Jack in the Box, have recalled the hamburger patties, a top industry consultant said on Tuesday.

Also, the company that supplied the food chains has recalled the product, though it is all but certain it has been consumed, said the consultant, Dave Theno.

"At this stage, I believe they are all completed," Theno, a former executive with Jack in the Box, said of the fast food chains' recall actions.

In the Oct. 28, 2013, letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service, Rancho Feeding manager Scott Parks criticized as unfounded a USDA inspector's report that a cow was slaughtered inhumanely.

The Press Democrat obtained the letter from a source who asked to remain anonymous because the case is being investigated by the USDA and the U.S. Attorney General. In it, Parks said Rancho would lose customers if it was thought to be treating animals incorrectly.

His main concern was with Jack in the Box.

"The majority of our carcasses end up at Jack in the Box," Parks wrote to the USDA's Alameda office, "and if they stop taking our product we will be out of business."

Former Rancho co-owner Robert Singleton said Tuesday that he doubted Parks had actually written such a statement regarding the fast-food company, saying, "He wouldn't know."

Jack in the Box officials did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

Rancho was forced in February to recall 8.7 million pounds of beef and veal produced in 2013 and sold throughout the United States and Canada. The USDA said it had been produced without being fully inspected.

No illnesses have been reported, but thousands of retailers who bought Rancho meat, from Safeway to Wal-Mart, have had to recall products ranging from Hot Pocket sandwiches to beef jerky from Sonoma-based Krave Pure Foods.

Also, a number of North Bay custom ranchers have had their beef locked down — unable to sell or retrieve it — even though, they say, the health of their cattle has not been questioned and they were processed separately from the plant's dairy cows.

The USDA and the U.S. Attorney General's Office — as well as Rancho's owners — have been tight-lipped about what suspected wrongdoings are being investigated. Sources with knowledge of the investigation have said one issue is that the slaughterhouse was processing cows with cancer. That is illegal.

Rancho ceased operations in February and is in the process of being sold to a Marin rancher.

Parks, in the seven-page letter that is a catalogue of complaints about the USDA inspector, did not say how much of the slaughterhouse's beef was sold to Jack in the Box, which has 2,250 restaurants and franchises in 21 states, according to its website.

Theno said the meat represented "a substantial amount of product" for Jack in the Box.

About 40 percent of a typical fast-food hamburger patty consists of fat and fat trimmings. The remainder is the type of lean beef that Rancho produced from dairy cows it purchased, said Theno, who was senior vice president and chief food safety officer for Jack in the Box. The company hired him after a 1993 scandal in which its burgers were blamed for a massive food illness outbreak in which four children died.

Depending on the blend of lean to fat beef, and on the size of the hamburger patties, one million pounds of beef could produce 4 million quarter-pound patties to 9 million smaller patties, said Theno, a Meat Industry Hall of Fame member.

Rancho did not sell directly to Jack in the Box, but to a meat grinding operation that then sold patties to the fast food firm, said Theno. He said that the grinder, which he would not identify because of his links to the industry, also supplied other fast food chains. All had been affected by the recall, he said.

"I know for a fact that these guys (the grinder) produce for both Jack as well as other providers, major fast food people, and you've got to go out to everyone" in a recall, Theno said.

The breakdown in the food safety chain in the Rancho case already has caused a reassessment at the major fast-food chains, Theno said.

"This is a situation, everyone in the stream takes a look at, 'OK, we aren't having any fun here, what do we need to be doing to make sure this isn't happening on our watch again,'" he said.

There likely has been a burst of legal activity in the wake of the recall, said Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety attorney who publishes Food Safety News, an online news service.

From end users like Jack in the Box, through the grinders that supply them, through any middlemen, to the original slaughterhouse, each party relies on the actions of the one preceding it in the chain of distribution, Marler said.

"Jack in the Box would be the downstream entity making claims upstream," he said. "I would be shocked at this stage, given the amount of product being recalled and the number of stores and now restaurants being implicated, if there weren't claims being made."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.