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Feds launch criminal investigation of Petaluma slaughterhouse

  • Rancho Feeding Corp.'s slaughterhouse in Petaluma (PD FILE, 2004)

The U.S. Attorney's Office is conducting a criminal probe into Rancho Feeding Corporation, making it the third federal agency to investigate the Petaluma slaughterhouse caught up in a massive meat recall, Rep. Jared Huffman said Monday.

Huffman, who represents the Petaluma area, confirmed suspicions held by many North Bay ranchers and farm leaders that the investigation into Rancho extends beyond the offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Office of Inspector General.

The criminal investigation may explain the conspicuous lack of comment by USDA officials. Food safety experts have called it unusual and unsettling that officials have provided so few details on a recall that by Monday had affected customers at more than 2,100 retail and wholesale establishments in at least 29 states and five Canadian provinces.

Rancho Feeding Corp.

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Huffman, D-San Rafael, said he was informed Monday of the involvement of the U.S. Attorney's Office during a telephone call with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.

“The secretary emphasized the gravity of the investigation and the suspected misconduct by the owners of Rancho,” Huffman said. “That is the belief of investigators right now, although they can't give us any specifics.”

Vilsack emphatically denied the recall was in any way a failure of the inspection system, Huffman said. The secretary specifically ruled out claims that suspect meat got into the food supply due to a shortage of inspectors, as some national critics have suggested.

“He denied that was any part of the problem,” Huffman said. Instead, Vilsack told him that Rancho was “deliberately circumventing the inspection process.”

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