Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, is probably right when he says what the public still doesn’t know about a massive recall of meat from the Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma “is probably more than what we know.” But what we know now about what happened at this livestock slaughterhouse is significant — and pretty repugnant.
According to court documents handed down this week, four Rancho employees, including co-owners Jesse “Babe” Amaral Jr., 76, and Robert Singleton, 77, of Petaluma, are accused of participating in a “switch and slaughter” ruse to get around U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection procedures. The ruse included switching the heads of diseased cattle with those of healthy ones and directing employees to carve out “USDA condemned” stamps from unhealthy carcasses before processing them as healthy ones.
The result, according to an 11-count federal indictment unsealed Monday, is that Rancho processed and distributed meat from roughly 101 condemned cattle and 79 cows afflicted with eye cancer. This is meat that went out for general consumption — through fast food restaurants, packaged goods at grocery stores, etc. — on the pretense that it had received a federal seal of approval.
If the allegations prove true, it certainly removes doubt about whether federal authorities had reason to respond as they did — quickly shutting down the plant in January and issuing a recall for 8.7 million pounds of beef and veal, all of the meat processed at the plant in 2013. The plant subsequently closed, reopening later under the ownership of San Francisco-based Marin Sun Farms.
While questions still remain about the role of USDA inspectors who were on the site and whether they bear any responsibility for not raising red flags sooner, the charges made against these four employees are serious and sickening — both for health and ethical reasons.
The indictments allege that dating back possibly as far as mid-2012, Amaral had directed Rancho employees to process livestock that had already been condemned by a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian. Amaral allegedly paid the Rancho foreperson, Felix Sandoval Cabrera, $50 for each diseased carcass that got past inspectors. Cabarera, 55, of Santa Rosa, and Eugene Corda, 65, of Petaluma, the facility’s main yard person, were also named in the indictments.
This was no isolated incident. Roughly 44,000 retail establishments were harmed in some way by the recall. The actions, if confirmed at trial, defrauded farmers who paid Rancho a handling fee to dispose of cattle they were told were condemned but, in fact, were processed and sold as healthy. The recall also caused considerable harm to local ranchers who had thousands of dollars worth of good meat that could not go to market because it was processed at the Petaluma slaughterhouse.
But all of this pales in comparison to the untold damage done to the public’s overall trust in the safety of their food. If ever there was a case demonstrating the importance of federal food inspectors — and the need for more of them — this was it.