A federal food inspector at Rancho Feeding Corp. repeatedly criticized practices inside the Petaluma slaughterhouse now at the center of an international meat recall and an ongoing criminal investigation, according to union officials.
The inspector at Rancho thought her supervising veterinarian had approved "questionable" dairy cows for slaughter during a five-month period last year, according to a union official who said he has reviewed documents detailing the inspector's accounts.
The federal inspector also alleged that employees at the Petaluma plant had mistreated animals, improperly discharged wastewater and subjected her to harassment, said Paul Carney, president of the Western Council of the National Joint Council of Inspection Locals, the federal meat inspectors union.
The inspector's concerns, which upset plant management, were often ignored by her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Carney said, citing documents that he has reviewed. She was moved to another plant in November, he said.
He criticized the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, saying the agency did not support the inspector or intervene at Rancho to resolve problems at the plant.
"I think the plant was allowed to have too close of a relationship with FSIS management, but FSIS management is to blame for that," said Carney, a former inspector.
It is unclear what role, if any, the incidents Carney described may have played in the events leading up to the recall and ongoing investigations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, its Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The investigations are focusing on events that allegedly occurred outside the presence of USDA inspectors assigned to the plant, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Monday after a telephone briefing from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The USDA said it is examining "the company's intermittent circumvention of inspection requirements."
Robert Singleton, one of Rancho's co-owners, said the company did not attempt to get around inspection rules and never harvested animals without an inspector on site. He denied any mistreatment of the USDA inspector.
"No, she wasn't harassed," Singleton said.
His partner, Jesse "Babe" Amaral, has not returned telephone calls seeking comment.
The inspectors union has tussled for years with the USDA over food safety protocols. The rules, according to union leaders, give slaughterhouse officials too much control over the safety and inspection process. More recently, the inspectors union has said staffing levels are unacceptably low.
A top union official last week suggested that a shortage of inspectors may have played a role in the Rancho recall. The inspectors are stretched too thin and do not have enough time to properly examine meat, said Stan Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals.
Vilsack, however, told two North Bay congressmen last week that the Rancho recall did not reflect in any way a failure of the inspection system, Huffman said. The secretary rejected suggestions that suspect meat got into the food supply due to a shortage of inspectors.
The USDA has said Rancho "processed diseased and unsound animals" without a full inspection. Rancho is now recalling all 8.7 million pounds of beef and veal it processed in 2013. No reports of illness have been linked to the meat.
The USDA's description of the meat in question is telling, said Seattle attorney Bill Marler, a specialist in food safety cases.