Rancho Feeding Corp. co-owner sentenced to one year in prison
Jesse “Babe” Amaral Jr., the Rancho Feeding slaughterhouse owner whose sale of meat from condemned and uninspected cattle led to a nationwide food recall two years ago, was sentenced Wednesday to one year in federal prison followed by two years of supervised release.
Amaral, 78, was spared a greater sentence because of his poor health. But U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer said it would send the wrong message if the former Petaluma slaughterhouse owner didn’t serve some time in prison for his crime. He called Amaral’s actions a “betrayal of trust” for the hundreds of millions of Americans who rely on the federal inspection system to ensure food safety.
“It’s one of the most cynical, calculated circumventions that I’ve ever seen or heard of,” Breyer said. He suggested it was only due to luck that no one had become ill or died from the sale of the condemned and uninspected meat.
Amaral has until March 25 to report to prison, an extension that the judge said was given partly to provide federal prison officials more time to determine where best to house a frail man who has suffered three heart attacks and undergone a triple bypass operation.
Amaral was the last of four defendants to plead guilty to what prosecutors called “an outrageous scheme to distribute adulterated meat” for human consumption from the Petaluma slaughterhouse.
The conspiracy included fooling federal meat inspectors at the plant by secretly switching the heads of questionable cattle with those from apparently healthy animals.
Federal investigators first raided the Rancho facility in early 2014. By February, Amaral had closed the plant on Petaluma Boulevard North as part of the federal recall of 8.7 million pounds of meat, essentially a year’s production.
Some of the accused eventually admitted that between January 2013 and January 2014, Rancho had distributed carcasses and meat from 101 condemned cattle and 79 uninspected cows that had exhibited signs of eye cancer. The presence of eye cancer can lead an inspector to disqualify the animal for slaughter.
With 17 cattle, prosecutors said, Rancho processed the uninspected animals but fraudulently told farmers that their cattle had died or been condemned and then charged handling fees for the animals’ disposal.
While much of the affected meat was low-cost ground beef likely destined for fast-food restaurants, the recall also snared a number of North Bay ranchers whose grass-fed animals were separately slaughtered at Rancho with the meat returned to the ranchers for distribution to high-end restaurants and markets. Despite the ranchers’ angry protests that their cattle had been properly inspected and kept separate from Rancho’s distributing operations, officials for the U.S. Department of Agriculture demanded that all the meat be destroyed.
Some of those ranchers, along with food safety experts and others, have questioned whether the USDA and its inspectors failed to adequately oversee the operation at Rancho. Answers to those questions have not been forthcoming from the agency, said Rep. Jared Huffman, whose North Coast district includes Petaluma
“We have just received the royal runaround for two years on that part of the story,” Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Tuesday. He said he will keep pressing for answers “to make sure there’s accountability for those who were negligent at best.”
The new proposed 2017 budget from the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General does include language stating that it will address Congressional concerns about the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service “staffing and management decisions for livestock slaughter establishments.”
“Specifically,” the document states, “we address whether FSIS has controls in place to ensure that the right mix of human capital is in place, adequately trained, and properly performing pre-slaughter and humane handling activities.”
The issue of USDA oversight arose briefly Wednesday when Amaral’s attorney, Michael A. Dias of Hanford, argued that there had been “significant errors” on the part of the plant’s inspection staff. For example, he maintained, the destruction of the carcasses of condemned animals was supposed to be done “before their eyes.”
“Are you blaming (the USDA)?” Breyer asked Dias. He declared that oversight of the federal agency was “not the court’s job.”
Before his sentencing, Amaral stood dressed in a black jacket and dark trousers and told Breyer, “I’m sorry for the pain and financial loss for the victims. … I take responsibility.”
“When I should have led, I followed,” Amaral said. “When I should have stopped things, I’m sorry, but I didn’t.”