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In its news release on the recall, the agency asserted that Rancho "processed diseased and unsound animals" without a full inspection. The meat products are "unsound, unwholesome or otherwise are unfit for human food" and must be removed from commerce.

There are no reports of anyone becoming ill after eating the beef.

The involvement of the inspector general's office suggests a more serious level of inquiry by the USDA, one expert said.

The Office of the Inspector General "doesn't get involved in every case," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist who follows the meat processing industry for Consumer's Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports magazine. "That suggests that something else is going on that needs to be looked at."

However, a spokesman for a national meat processors group said Tuesday's statement simply confirmed what was already known, namely that an investigation was underway.

The Office of the Inspector General is the investigative arm of the USDA, said Jeremy Russell, director of communications and government relations in Oakland for the North American Meat Association. Its involvement, he said, merely suggests "there was some practice that the USDA feels it needs to investigate."

The department's concerns about Rancho first came to light Jan. 10 when federal agents and Petaluma police converged on the Petaluma Boulevard North plant.

Three days later the USDA announced that Rancho was recalling 41,683 pounds of meat it had processed on Jan. 8. The agency asserted the meat didn't receive a full federal inspection.

On Saturday that recall was expanded to all beef processed at Rancho between Jan. 1, 2013, and Jan. 7, 2014, a USDA spokesman said. The recall involves both the carcasses, the finished bodies of the animals, and the other parts, commonly referred to as offal.

The processed beef was shipped to retailers and distributors in California, Florida, Illinois and Texas, according to the announcement. The USDA released the names of 14 stores in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties that have been instructed to return meat processed by Rancho. Five were markets that cater to Latino customers.

Other than the two recall announcements and the statement on Tuesday, USDA officials have declined to elaborate on the underlying reasons for the recall or the breadth of their investigation.

Similarly, the plant's owners, Robert Singleton and Jesse "Babe" Amaral, have limited their comments to a confirmation Monday that Rancho had voluntarily ceased processing and was compiling a list of affected companies.

At that time, Singleton said the company undertook the recall out of "an abundance of caution" but declined comment on the government's allegations. Both men were unavailable Tuesday.

Even as the government and the owners say little, North Bay ranchers and meat processors continue to raise concerns about the impact of the closure and the possible loss of a key facility for the region's cattle industry.

"We are outraged, absolutely outraged by the closure," said Lesley Brabyn, owner of Salmon Creek Ranch between Bodega and Bodega Bay. "They're going to put all small farmers who are trying to humanely raise animals out of business."

Brabyn said ranchers can make $5,000 from each steer processed at Rancho. She would normally take 25 to 30 steers there each year. Transporting those animals to processors three hours away will raise ranchers' costs significantly, she said.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

She said she has worked with Rancho for about six years and believes the operation to be exceedingly careful.

"One time I went to pick up my meat they slaughtered," she said. "I had a tarp in the back of my pickup to load it, and they said it wasn't clean enough. I had to go all the way home and clean it.

"They would not relent. They would not give me my meat," she said, "Does that sound like a company that's lax?"

Susan Brady, who operates Freestone Ranch with her brother and sister-in-law in Valley Ford and Covelo, said they had four steer carcasses confiscated after the first USDA raid in January.

Rancho reimbursed her for the beef, she said, at less than what she could have earned in retail sales. Even so, she said she supports Rancho.

"It's really hard to have this happen with no explanation, knowing our animals were very healthy," Brady said.

Rancho is hired by local ranchers to process pasture-raised cattle sold at farmers markets and high-end restaurants. Rancho also buys a significant number of older dairy cows and sells the meat to wholesalers and markets. It also processes hogs one day a week.

"I think it's important to sustain local agriculture, and Rancho is a huge part of that," said Jonni Offenbach, who with her parents owns Golden Gate Meat Company in Santa Rosa, she said.

The recall and plant closure are affecting Golden Gate's business and its employees because there's currently no meat on hand to process, Offenbach said. And trucking cattle to slaughterhouses in Eureka or Los Banos "definitely increases the cost to the consumer," she said.

Judy Ahmann, who with her husband owns 300 cattle on ranches near Lake Berryessa and the Carneros region, said she has taken cattle to Rancho for decades and feels compelled to speak on the owners' behalf.

A former president of the California Cattlewoman, Ahmann said she has visited slaughterhouses around the state and "Rancho is one of the tidiest and cleanest ones I've seen."

The closure also affects a UC Cooperative Extension program where 15 cattle last year were donated by local ranchers to the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

Cheryl La Franchi, owner of Oak Ridge Angus cattle ranch outside Calistoga, said she has an animal she was planning to donate this week. But owners can't afford to donate cattle if it means trucking them to a distant slaughterhouse, she said.

"Nobody's going to drive down to Modesto," La Franchi said.

Staff Writers Jamie Hansen and Lori A. Carter contributed to this story.

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