Sonoma County’s congressional representatives are right. Six months of secrecy surrounding the federal raid of a Petaluma slaughterhouse and a nationwide recall of meat processed there in 2013 is more than enough. It’s time for federal investigators to come clean with their investigation into Rancho Feeding Corp. — if only to allow local ranchers who relied on Rancho for food processing to move on with a better understanding of what they can do, if anything, to address their losses.
That’s the gist of a letter sent recently by Reps. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, to Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
USDA officials “are using pending investigations as a convenient foil for complete secrecy and radio silence,” Huffman told The Press Democrat. “And that is simply not acceptable.”
We couldn’t agree more — particularly given that the investigation reportedly includes questions about the conduct of some federal authorities responsible for assuring food safety at the Petaluma plant.
The details remain fuzzy. But as Thompson and Huffman noted in their letter sent Friday, “After six months of investigations, the OIG (office of the inspector general) has not closed the case nor responded to media reports of misconduct, including reports of an intimate relationship between a USDA inspector and an employee of the slaughterhouse.”
All that has been officially disclosed is that an investigation by federal agents and Petaluma police and a Jan. 10 search resulted in a recall of meat processed on a particular day. A few weeks later, the recall was expanded to cover all 8.7 million pounds of beef and veal processed at the plant last year. The plant subsequently closed, but it has since reopened under the ownership of San Francisco-based Marin Sun Farms.
Nevertheless, the recall reportedly affected 44,000 retail establishments as well as some local ranchers who have thousands of dollars worth of meat that would need to be destroyed if they fail to get clearance from federal authorities. Among them are Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman of BN Ranch in Bolinas, who say they have more than $300,000 of meat in frozen storage. They’re waiting for federal authorities to release their findings in hopes of proving to federal regulators that their beef was not affected and is still safe to eat.
The USDA has officially said little about the reason for the recall other than alleging that Rancho “processed diseased animals” without a full inspection. A federal document later revealed more specific concerns that “dairy cow carcasses with signs of eye cancer may have gone into the food chain.”
Despite the health concerns, there have been no reports of illness from anyone consuming the meat.
The USDA raised some serious health concerns six months ago and then promptly closed the door on any more information, leaving a void that has been filled since then by rumor and speculation. This is no way for a public agency to respond, especially one that is responsible for food safety. The public deserves a clear explanation of what happened and what changes need to be made to ensure it doesn’t happen again.