New era begins at Petaluma slaughterhouse (w/video)

Aspiration was in the air Friday at the former Rancho Feeding Corp., a marked change from the scandal that has enveloped the Petaluma slaughterhouse for months.

The new owner of the Petaluma plant -- which went under in February amid a massive recall of its beef and veal products -- promised a new era.

"The change comes from the top; we have new leadership," said David Evans, owner of Marin Sun Farms. He and a group of investors he would not identify purchased the plant Feb. 28 for a sum he wouldn't disclose. They plan to reopen the plant April 7 under the name Marin Sun Farms Petaluma, Evans said.

In expansive terms, he described a new future in which the plant would play a central role.

"We can process your livestock, cut and pack them to specification and deliver orders to customers in the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area," he said. "The floodgates to private-labeled meat have opened."

The now-defunct Rancho in February recalled all the 8.7 million pounds of beef and veal it processed in 2013. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the plant had circumvented inspection rules and "processed diseased and unsound animals." The agency, its inspector general and the U.S. Attorney General's Office are investigating the Rancho operation.

Evans said every system, process and procedure in the slaughterhouse operation had been reconstructed to focus on high standards and transparency, and with the participation and approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Everything has been rewritten, reinspected and recertified," he said.

Twelve of the former 14 employees will be retained, although none will be in management or supervisory positions, said Danny Kramer, the new company's chief operating officer. He said the former plant manager, Scott Parks, who was not present Friday, has been retained as a consultant.

Several ranchers at the event greeted the developments hopefully. And they applauded Evans' statements that he wants to make the plant an integral part of the region's custom-meats business, linking animals from the pasture to the consumer's dinner plate in a way that assures quality.

"I think it's very promising for the community," said Joe Pozzi, a Valley Ford sheep and cattle rancher. "Having a local processing plant, especially with the capabilities of doing further processing and distribution, that's going to be a real benefit to small producers here."

"It's going to give the farmers one more way to get into the market," said Doug Beretta of a Beretta Dairy in Santa Rosa. "I think it's going to open up the doors to some backyard producers."

Evans and Kramer spoke at a press conference held in the plant's loading dock room, meat hooks hanging overhead marking the path the animal carcasses travel on their way to being quartered and put into trucks. The USDA certified Marin Sun to operate the abattoir on Wednesday.

The plant operators will work closely with local ranchers, offering a full menu of services from slaughter to processing and distribution, said Evans, a leader in the sustainable meat production industry.

Marin Suns owns a San Francisco facility where carcasses are cut down further and wrapped. That will be an integral part of the chain of production to market, Evans said.

"We're in this with everyone to transform the food supply chain," he said. "It's not all about the animals that grow up on my ranch; it's about working with other ranchers."

He hopes to start the plant with a volume of about 100 hogs a week and 100 beef cattle a week, roughly half what Rancho was processing, he said.

The Petaluma plant is considered crucial to ranchers who raise grass-fed beef and sell it to high-end restaurants and at farmers markets. Without the plant, ranchers must take their cattle to processing facilities in Eureka or the Central Valley.

Much of Rancho's business involved the purchase of dairy cows and other cattle, which it slaughtered and sold directly on the wholesale beef market.

Custom beef ranchers who used the facility had their meat caught up in the recall even though they said they separately monitored it through the slaughter process. Their efforts to convince the USDA to exempt their product from the recall failed last week when the agency said it could not guarantee their meat was not cross-contaminated by uninspected meat.

Evans was among those who suffered financial losses; he would not on Friday disclose the amount, saying only that they were "significant."

The revival of the slaughterhouse under new ownership "is a big event," said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. His 2nd District includes the plant.

"I've always believed this to be an integral part of the agricultural infrastructure" of Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Mendocino counties, he said.

Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, suggested the custom meat industry may grow as Marin Sun Farms gets going.

"There are so many niche operators and this is what they need, access to a private slaughterhouse," Tesconi said. "This will help them get their meat out there under their own label. This is going to bring others to do this."

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or

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