Two former owners and two employees of a Petaluma slaughterhouse at the center of an international meat recall have been charged with selling meat from diseased cattle and concealing the elaborate scheme from federal inspectors by swapping out the heads of cows with eye cancer.
Rancho Feeding Corp. co-owner Robert Singleton, 77, of Petaluma, is cooperating with prosecutors and expected to plead guilty to a single count of distribution of adulterated meat, according to court records unsealed Monday.
His former partner, Jesse “Babe” Amaral Jr., and two Rancho employees are accused of circumventing U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection procedures and processing the diseased meat in violation of federal law, according to an 11-count federal indictment.
The charges cap an eight-month federal investigation that followed a massive meat recall at the former Rancho plant on Petaluma Boulevard North. The slaughterhouse closed in February after recalling 8.7 million pounds of its beef and veal sold in the United States and Canada — all that was processed there in 2013.
Roughly 44,000 retail establishments were involved in the recall, a USDA official told local farmers. The action also caused considerable financial harm to North Bay ranchers who had used the plant for the custom slaughter of their grass-fed cattle and were ordered to dispose of any remaining meat.
The indictment, which was returned last Thursday by a federal grand jury and unsealed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, named Amaral, 76, of Petaluma; Rancho foreperson Felix Cabrera, 55, of Santa Rosa; and Eugene Corda, 65, of Petaluma, who was the facility’s main yard person, responsible for receiving cattle and moving them for inspection and slaughter. Singleton was charged in a separate filing.
Amaral and Corda pleaded not guilty to the charges Monday in U.S. District Court and were released on $50,000 bond, according to court records. Singleton is scheduled to appear in court Friday. Cabrera has not yet made his initial appearance, according to prosecutors and court records.
News of the charges sent ripples through the North Bay farming community, where Amaral, Singleton and Corda were longtime members with extended families.
“It’s hard to take because they’ve been in the community for so long,” said Stephanie Larson, director of the UC Cooperative Extension program in Sonoma County, which advises local farmers. The allegations, if true, would amount to a “black eye” for North Bay agriculture, she said.
As well, farm officials, food safety advocates and the region’s two members of Congress voiced concerns about how much remains unknown.