A decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cut the number of food safety inspectors at a Petaluma slaughterhouse is coming under new scrutiny this week, with federal prosecutors alleging that Rancho Feeding Corp. employees processed 180 diseased or condemned cattle after the USDA reduced its presence at the facility.
The USDA transferred one of its inspectors assigned to the plant in October 2012 and did not replace the individual, said Paul Carney, a regional president for the union that represents USDA inspectors.
“Looks like it started right after, didn’t it?” Carney said of the alleged criminal activity.
A federal indictment unsealed Monday alleged that Rancho’s owners and two employees illegally processed 180 diseased or condemned cattle between January 2013 and January 2014. While no USDA employees were charged in the alleged scheme, several members of Congress are demanding the agency explain how such crimes could have taken place at a federally inspected slaughterhouse.
“They clearly dropped the ball,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
Huffman, who has criticized the USDA as “extremely secretive,” said the number of inspection staff on hand is just one of the many questions facing the agency about Rancho. Just as important is how well the staff members were doing their jobs, he said.
“Clearly there’s at least one more shoe that needs to drop,” he said.
The USDA again declined comment this week, citing the criminal case as the reason for the agency’s silence.
Prosecutors this week charged Rancho co-owner Jesse “Babe” Amaral Jr., and employees Felix Cabrera and Eugene Corda with circumventing inspection procedures and processing impure meat in violation of federal law. The three also are charged with mail fraud conspiracy for allegedly billing ranchers to dispose of their condemned animals even though the cattle actually were processed for food.
Rancho co-owner Robert Singleton is cooperating with prosecutors and expected to plead guilty to a single count of distribution of adulterated meat, according to court records.
The eight-month investigation at the former Rancho plant on Petaluma Boulevard North triggered a recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef and veal sold in the United States and Canada — all that was processed there in 2013. Rancho closed in February and the plant was sold and reopened in April by Marin Sun Farms.
The indictment unsealed Monday said the fraudulent processing of condemned cattle and those with cancerous eyes began “in approximately mid to late 2012.” More specifically, it alleged that Rancho had processed approximately 101 condemned cattle and 79 cows with eye cancer between January 2013 and January 2014 — after the union says the agency had reduced the number of inspectors at the plant.
“The high jinks seem to have happened when that position was eliminated from Rancho,” said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist with Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
The USDA has yet to say how many inspectors worked during a normal shift at Rancho. Carney, a council president on the National Joint Council of Inspection Locals, said he believed the facility typically had one inspector per shift after the October 2012 reduction in staff. Bill Niman, a Marin County cattle rancher, said he and his staff typically saw two inspectors on hand, one of whom was inside watching the production line as the dead animals were processed. Their work was supervised by a USDA veterinarian assigned to the plant.