As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Thompson is privy to all kinds of sensitive material on matters of national importance. But he can't find out what's happening with the Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma.
None of us can. And we agree with the North Bay congressman that with each passing day it gets more troubling.
More than five weeks have passed since initial actions were taken at the Rancho's Petaluma plant, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to release information about what is happening.
All the public knows is that what began as a investigation by federal agents and Petaluma police at the Petaluma Boulevard North plant on Jan. 10 quickly evolved into a recall of meat processed on a particular day. Within a few weeks, Rancho had expanded the recall to include all 8.7 million pounds of beef processed at the plant last year.
And it has grown from there. As reported, some 1,600 food distributors in the United States and Canada have now recalled beef and other products made with Rancho meat. These include frozen sandwiches and frozen hamburger patties sold at Wal-Mart.
This week, the list of recalled items was expanded to include certain batches of El Monterey's Beef & Cheese Taquitos and Ranchero Steak Tornados, products made by Ruiz Food Products in Dinuba and distributed in the United States and Canada.
The USDA has said little so far other than alleging that Rancho "processed diseased animals" without a full inspection. Both the department's Office of Inspector General and its Food Safety and Inspection Service are conducting separate investigations.
Meanwhile, the company's owners, who have ceased operations and reportedly are in negotiations to sell the plant to a San Francisco-based operator, have been tight-lipped, saying only that the recall was made out of "an abundance of caution."
We have no reason to doubt that something serious happened at the Petaluma plant. But the allegation of "diseased" animals being processed is a sweeping charge that casts a cloud over many North Bay ranchers, many of whom have been quick to defend their pasture-fed animals as healthy. But as long as their beef is under recall without explanation, they remain unable to clear their names.
They also remain without a place to take their cattle. Rancho, which processes dairy cows as well as pasture-raised beef, is the only cattle slaughterhouse in the North Bay, meaning cattle have to be transported to Eureka or the Central Valley.
Also concerning is the lack of transparency if it turns out that USDA workers played a role in the inspection breakdowns. Given that food inspectors had an on-site presence at the Petaluma plant, it's hard to see how the department itself does not share some responsibility.
But at this point, that's just speculation — which is always what's left when the public doesn't have good information. The USDA needs to start delivering some.