Custom beef ranchers who used the now-shuttered Rancho Feeding Corp. for a slaughterhouse will not be allowed to sell any of the meat they processed at the Petaluma company's plant, the federal government told the ranchers on Wednesday.
That stymies for now the ranchers' efforts to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of their beef from the international recall of Rancho products.
The ranchers reacted angrily.
"We're not done with them yet. They're opening up a can of worms by doing this," said Bill Niman, a Bolinas cattleman who said he has at least of $300,000 of his high-end beef tied up in the recall.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, also said that it would not pay the ranchers for the embargoed product.
"FSIS does not have authority to offer compensation," Daniel Engeljohn, assistant administrator for the FSIS Office of Field Operations, wrote to Niman on Wednesday.
"It's ridiculous and bogus," said Tara Smith, owner of Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma. She surrendered a far smaller amount of meat than Niman, she said, about 270 pounds of offal and ground beef, but was outraged by the decision.
The slaughterhouse closed down in February amid a recall of 8.7 million pounds of its beef and veal sold in the United States and Canada — all that it processed in 2013. The company is being investigated by the USDA, the agency's inspector general and the U.S. attorney General's Office.
The agencies have been tight-lipped about the suspected wrongdoing. The USDA has said, without elaboration, that Rancho Feeding circumvented inspection rules and "processed diseased and unsound animals."
One of Rancho's former owners, Babe Amaral, also has called for the ranchers' meat to be released. In a statement through his attorney, he said none of their cows or meat was "tainted, diseased or uninspected."
However, at an earlier meeting between Engeljohn and the affected ranchers, Engeljohn told them the "deception" by Rancho's operators had left regulators unable to conclude that any of the recalled meat was safe.
That view was restated with certainty in Wednesday's letter.
"Even though the investigation is ongoing, FSIS is confident that it cannot ensure that your product was not substituted or cross-contaminated with other product not receiving complete inspection," Engeljohn said in a letter also sent Wednesday to several other ranchers.
"Consequently, your product along with all other product handled by the establishment during the scope of the recall also is determined to be unfit and cannot bear the mark of inspection," he wrote.
The FSIS confirmed Wednesday that several agency food safety and policy experts made the decision.
Local politicians diverged in their reactions.
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, expressed sharp disapproval of the regulators' decision.
"I'm not regarding this as the end of it," said Huffman, whose district who includes the operations of Niman and many other affected ranchers. "I'm hoping Mr. Niman and the other beef producers won't either, because this is completely unacceptable."
He said that the USDA shouldn't have denied the ranchers' requests without first explaining clearly what went on at Rancho and allowing the producers the chance to make an informed case for why their beef remains safe for human consumption.