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The co-owner of a now-defunct Petaluma slaughterhouse at the center of last year’s nationwide recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef pleaded guilty Wednesday to being part of a conspiracy to avoid inspections and distribute meat from diseased cows, including those with eye cancer.

Jesse “Babe” Amaral Jr., who operated Rancho Feeding Corp., became the fourth and final defendant to admit criminal wrongdoing in a scandal that rocked the custom beef world and drew attention to practices of federal meat regulators.

The plea, which exposes Amaral to a maximum of 28 years in prison, brings to a close a dark chapter of Sonoma County agricultural history.

“The Sonoma County agriculture industry is glad to see an end to the troubling investigation of Rancho and move on,” said Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “What happened at Rancho is not typical of the many ranches and processors in Sonoma County that strive for excellence and transparency in the quality food they produce.”

But it also slams the door shut on the prospect of trial testimony that could expose any mistakes made by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors.

Bill Niman, a Marin County rancher whose cattle were processed at the facility, accused the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service of providing inadequate oversight at the Petaluma plant, forcing him to destroy 57,000 pounds of untainted meat. He said he has yet to receive a penny in restitution for his losses, which he estimated at $1 million.

“I think the public deserves a trial,” Niman said Wednesday. “We certainly do. I know it would be incredibly embarrassing to the federal government. They are dirty here.”

In fact, USDA officials responded to allegations of shared blame by promising to restore inspector positions at companies slaughtering older, high-risk cattle that may be prone to disease, said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist with Food and Water Watch, a Washington consumer advocacy group.

“That’s one silver lining to come out of this,” Corbo said.

But he said questions remain about why a USDA holding pen inspector was removed at Rancho and whether the federal agency is committed to maintaining staffing levels at slaughterhouses in the future.

A spokesman for the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who had been critical of inspections, also did not return a call. A spokesman said he was unavailable because he was on a trip to Panama.

A spokesman for Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said Wednesday the congressman would work with the USDA to ensure actions leading to the recall do not occur again.

Amaral, 77, and co-owner Robert Singleton, 78, were indicted last year after an eight-month investigation revealed employees knowingly processed condemned or diseased cattle while federal inspectors were absent or on lunch breaks.

In some cases, employees cut out “USDA condemned” stamps on carcasses of diseased cows or processed animals after removing their heads so inspectors wouldn’t notice they had eye cancer.

In all, Rancho sold meat from 180 diseased or condemned cattle, prosecutors alleged in their indictment. No illnesses were reported, and the slaughterhouse recalled all beef and veal that it processed in 2013. More than 40,000 retailers that sold products made with Rancho meat, from Safeway to Wal-Mart, had to recall products ranging from Hot Pocket sandwiches to Jack in the Box hamburgers.

Two former employees, foreman Felix Cabrera, 55, of Santa Rosa and yard worker Eugene Corda, 65, of Petaluma also were indicted. Singleton, Cabrera and Corda last year admitted their roles and are awaiting sentencing.

As part of Amaral’s plea, he admitted directing his employees to process the diseased cattle from 2012 through Jan. 10, 2014, when federal agents raided the business, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

He also admitted instructing them to circumvent inspection procedures for cattle exhibiting symptoms of cancer eye and process the meat for human consumption without full inspection.

Finally, he admitted the slaughterhouse submitted fraudulent cattle invoices to farmers between at least 2012 and January 2014.

He will be sentenced July 1 by U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer.

Singleton pleaded guilty on Aug. 22 to a single count of distributing adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat. He also admitted participating in the scheme to fraudulently invoice farmers.

Corda pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to distribute adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat. And Cabrera, Rancho’s “kill floor” supervisor, pleaded guilty to the same offense in November.

A status hearing is scheduled for Singleton, Cabrera, and Corda on Aug. 12.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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Editor’s Note:

CLARIFICATION: Eugene Corda pleaded guilty to distributing adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat at Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma. He did not plead guilty to conspiracy. A story published on Feb. 19 on Page A1 incorrectly described his plea, based on inaccurate information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.