Four indicted in Rancho Feeding slaughterhouse scandal
Two former owners and two employees of a Petaluma slaughterhouse at the center of an international meat recall have been charged with selling meat from diseased cattle and concealing the elaborate scheme from federal inspectors by swapping out the heads of cows with eye cancer.
Rancho Feeding Corp. co-owner Robert Singleton, 77, of Petaluma, is cooperating with prosecutors and expected to plead guilty to a single count of distribution of adulterated meat, according to court records unsealed Monday.
His former partner, Jesse “Babe” Amaral Jr., and two Rancho employees are accused of circumventing U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection procedures and processing the diseased meat in violation of federal law, according to an 11-count federal indictment.
The charges cap an eight-month federal investigation that followed a massive meat recall at the former Rancho plant on Petaluma Boulevard North. The slaughterhouse closed in February after recalling 8.7 million pounds of its beef and veal sold in the United States and Canada - all that was processed there in 2013.
Roughly 44,000 retail establishments were involved in the recall, a USDA official told local farmers. The action also caused considerable financial harm to North Bay ranchers who had used the plant for the custom slaughter of their grass-fed cattle and were ordered to dispose of any remaining meat.
The indictment, which was returned last Thursday by a federal grand jury and unsealed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, named Amaral, 76, of Petaluma; Rancho foreperson Felix Cabrera, 55, of Santa Rosa; and Eugene Corda, 65, of Petaluma, who was the facility’s main yard person, responsible for receiving cattle and moving them for inspection and slaughter. Singleton was charged in a separate filing.
Amaral and Corda pleaded not guilty to the charges Monday in U.S. District Court and were released on $50,000 bond, according to court records. Singleton is scheduled to appear in court Friday. Cabrera has not yet made his initial appearance, according to prosecutors and court records.
News of the charges sent ripples through the North Bay farming community, where Amaral, Singleton and Corda were longtime members with extended families.
“It’s hard to take because they’ve been in the community for so long,” said Stephanie Larson, director of the UC Cooperative Extension program in Sonoma County, which advises local farmers. The allegations, if true, would amount to a “black eye” for North Bay agriculture, she said.
As well, farm officials, food safety advocates and the region’s two members of Congress voiced concerns about how much remains unknown.
“The allegations in the indictment are shocking, but there are still many unanswered questions about how this could have happened at a federally inspected slaughter facility,” said Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Prosecutors said Singleton, Rancho’s cattle buyer, purchased animals with lumps or other abnormalities around the eye, signs of possible eye cancer, which made them less expensive than healthy cattle.
The indictment alleged that Amaral and Singleton directed their two employees to circumvent the inspection process for diseased cows.
Federal prosecutors allege that Cabrera, or another kill floor employee at his instruction, fooled inspectors by placing heads from apparently healthy cows next to carcasses of cows with eye cancer, making the diseased carcasses appear healthy. The indictment stated that this “switch and slaughter” of uninspected cows with eye cancer occurred during the lunch break taken by federal meat inspectors, at a time when plant operations were supposed to cease.
Amaral allegedly directed Cabrera to order employees on the kill floor to carve “USDA Condemned” stamps out of cattle carcasses and process the carcasses for sale and distribution.
Between January 2013 and January 2014, Rancho processed and distributed carcasses and meat from approximately 101 condemned cattle and 79 cows afflicted with eye cancer, according to the indictment.
Rancho paid Cabrera about $50 for each carcass that was slipped past inspectors, the indictment alleged.
Inspectors were not the only ones who were deceived by Rancho, prosecutors claim. Amaral allegedly billed farmers for the cost of disposing of sick and condemned cows, even though he had secretly sold the meat as healthy, according to the indictment. The indictment charges him with three counts of mail fraud in connection with the alleged billings.
Amaral, Cabrera and Corda are all charged with conspiracy to distribute adulterated meat and conspiracy to commit mail fraud, among other charges. The maximum penalty for mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud is 20 years in federal prison.