Criminal investigation opened on meat recall

Feb 28, 2014

A massive beef recall has some wondering if it’s not time to take a look at the systems in place; maybe it’s time for a change.

With $8.7 million pounds of beef being pulled from shelves across several states, equaling an entire year’s worth of products from one California company—Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma—it is no surprise that the company has had to close its doors.

According to a USDA, Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) press release, the company recall was initiated because the company “processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection. Thus, the products are adulterated, because they are unsound, unwholesome or otherwise are unfit for human food and must be removed from commerce,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced last week.

But there is some irony in the release. While FSIS claim they were not properly inspected, the release says the products being recalled bear the USDA mark of inspection. The recalled beef can be identified by the “EST. 527” present in the seal.

While the meat was delivered to a number of national supermarket locations, including Kroger and Walmart, it also ended up in products like Hot Pocket. The facility is also used by a number of grass-fed-beef producers in the California area. The closure has left them wondering what next.

Grass-fed beef producer Bill Niman, owner of BN Ranch, told reporters he slaughtered 426 cattle at Rancho Feeding Corp. last year. The meat that he still has in his freezer is now considered condemned by USDA, and cannot be sold.

Another meat producer, LeftCoast GrassFed, published an open letter to American Grassfed Association members. “Like all our fellow sustainable ranchers affected by the Rancho recall, we have been trying to glean all information and build a strong, coherent response. At this point, we don’t have any information from USDA about what happened. LeftCoast GrassFed and our hardworking, dedicated colleagues—small and family owned ranches, the supporters of rural America—have been struggling to ascertain if our beef was affected by the allegations made by the USDA against Rancho. The USDA’s original recall was focused on one day (Jan. 8, 2014) and, as we understand it, only on culled dairy cows that were processed without full inspection,” they shared.

“The recent incident at Rancho leaves ranchers struggling to understand why the beef we all spent years carefully raising in order to assure its wholesomeness and safety has been recalled, especially when there has not been a single report of illness or incident to justify these measures,” the letter reads.

Answers may not be coming anytime soon. The U.S. Attorneys’ Office announced plans to launch a criminal investigation against Rancho Feeding Corp.

In a world where small businesses struggle already, and a business with growing regulations and Mother Nature at odds, the recall raises some questions.

“All we know at this point is that nearly 9 million pounds of beef could possibly go to waste without any clear indication from the USDA as to why. That’s what makes this recall a potential and seemingly unjust tragedy for so many; ranchers don’t know why they are being targeted and penalized, especially at a time when so many are already struggling with drought conditions severe enough to warrant presidential attention and already putting a financial strain on this year’s profit margins,” LeftCoast writes.

The criminal investigation may explain some of USDA’s lack of communication.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is conducting a criminal probe into Rancho Feeding Corporation, making it the third federal agency to investigate the slaughterhouse, according to Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA).

Huffman, who represents the Petaluma area, confirmed suspicions that the investigation into Rancho extends beyond USDA and its Office of Inspector General.

Food safety experts have called it unusual and unsettling that officials have provided so few details on a recall that has affected customers at more than 2,100 retail and wholesale establishments in at least 29 states and five Canadian provinces.

Following the recall and closure, reports came in that a local farm had made arrangements to purchase the plant.

Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes Station, located along a national seashore 40 miles north of San Francisco, submitted the request to take over Rancho Feeding.

“Rancho Feeding has submitted a letter stating it is ceasing operations and voluntarily withdrawing from inspection,” FSIS said in a statement. “Marin Sun Farms has submitted an application to operate a new federal establishment at the former Rancho Feeding location. FSIS will review the application in accordance with our regulations and policies to ensure the firm meets requirements.”

A spokesman for Marin Sun Farms confirmed the sale but did not elaborate. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor