A Petaluma slaughterhouse at the center of a growing recall has voluntarily ceased operations while it attempts to track down and retrieve every shipment of beef from the facility over the past year.
The enormous scale of the recall raised questions about the future of the North Bay's last beef processing facility and set off criticism of federal regulators by local ranchers who rely on Rancho Feeding Corp. to slaughter their cattle.
The recall, which began Jan. 13 and was initially restricted to meat processed on a single day, expanded Saturday to include all 8.7 million pounds of meat processed at Rancho in 2013.
Robert Singleton, who owns Rancho with partner Jesse "Babe" Amaral, on Monday night said the company undertook the recall out of "an abundance of caution" and regrets any inconvenience to customers.
Singleton confirmed the company had voluntarily ceased processing and was compiling a list of affected companies. He declined further comment.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the expanded recall on Saturday, saying Rancho "processed diseased and unsound animals" without a full inspection. The meat products are "unsound, unwholesome or otherwise are unfit for human food" and must be removed from commerce, according to the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The recall affects all beef processed at Rancho between Jan. 1, 2013 and Jan. 7, 2014, a USDA spokesman said. The carcasses and other parts, commonly referred to as offal, were shipped to retailers and distributors in California, Florida, Illinois and Texas.
Some North Bay ranchers and meat purveyors questioned the logic behind the far-reaching recall, given that most of the beef was long ago consumed and there are no reports of anyone becoming ill after eating the beef.
"There should have been no recall," said Tara Smith, owner of Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma.
Smith was among the producers directly affected from the original Jan. 13 recall by Rancho. She estimated she lost about $8,000 worth of organically raised beef that she claimed was raised and processed according to proper health and safety procedures.
The extensive publicity was unfair not only to Rancho but also to the many producers who now have to inform their customers of the recall, Smith said.
Rancho has long been the only federally-inspected animal processing facility in Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Lake and Mendocino counties, with the exception of a small plant for sheep and goats near Occidental.
The plant serves a growing, high-end beef market, including grass-fed and organic cattle. Those ranchers use Rancho to kill their animals, who then take the carcasses for butchering and sale via markets, restaurants and farmers markets. As well, Rancho buys and slaughters older dairy cattle.
Over the years, Rancho Veal has been targeted by animal rights activists. Police in 2000 said arsonists set fires at the plant and at two poultry operations also in Sonoma County. That same year, animal rights activists demonstrated outside Rancho Veal.
In recent months the company began processing hogs one day a week. The plant reportedly slaughters cattle four days a week.