Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Theories Pile Up As Rancho Beef Investigation Continues

Many people are wondering why 8.7 million pounds of meat processed by Rancho Feeding Corporation in Petaluma, CA, were recalled and the slaughterhouse subsequently closed.

Could it be an inspector shortage? An inspector-veterinarian dispute? Cancerous cow eyes and circumvented inspection requirements?

Theories abound, and we’re keeping count.

The union representing U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspectors is offering one explanation. Last week, Stan Painter, who chairs the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, suggested inspector shortages around the country might have contributed to the problems in Petaluma.

This theory, first advanced last week in The New York Times, appears to have been discredited. The Times itself published a correction that did little to unwind the confusion over how vacancy or normal turnover rates got tangled up with poultry plant assignments and then projected onto staffing for beef-veal operations in Rancho.

Staffing numbers, however, are not an issue.

“There was no staffing shortage at Rancho Feeding; rather, it appears FSIS inspection procedures were consciously circumvented,” a knowledgeable source told Food Safety News.

Now, Paul Carney, president of the Western Council of the National Joint Council of Inspection Locals, is advancing a competing theory. The Press Democrat in Petaluma today published a story, sourced to Carney, that says the issues stem from a dispute between a USDA inspector and the now-retired federal veterinarian assigned to the plant over the handling of certain animals, and that FSIS was slow to take the dispute seriously.

Carney’s explanation of events at Rancho is at least plausible. He reportedly reviewed the inspector’s reports of the events.

While there is no outbreak or illness involved in the Rancho recall and shutdown, there is an ongoing federal investigation involving USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) and the U.S. District Attorney Office that has shut down most sources of government information on the case.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) found the Petaluma slaughterhouse processed “diseased and unsound animals.” All beef and veal that Rancho produced in 2013 was recalled.

Theory No. 3 involves local Congressmen Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), and Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena). Huffman says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told him that USDA wants to know if the company was involved in “intermittent circumvention of inspection requirements.”

And, finally, the San Francisco Chronicle reported today that Rancho was buying cows with eye cancer and separating their heads from the rest of the carcass outside the view of inspectors.

The newspaper reports that inspectors found two cattle heads infected with eye cancer after the original recall of 40,000 pounds of beef in January and the second recall on Feb. 8 that took the total to 8.7 million pounds. USDA’s use of the word “diseased” to describe the recalled beef may give credence to this latest report.

Before Carney’s recent suggestion of possible mistreatment of animals at Rancho, many were drawing comparisons between how USDA is handling this incident to the 2008 recall of 143 million pounds of beef produced at a Chino, CA, slaughterhouse by the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co.

Hallmark/Westland remains the largest beef recall in U.S. history. It was found to be processing “downer” cows at the same time it was one of the biggest suppliers to the National School Lunch Program.

No outbreak or illnesses were ever connected to that recall either, but USDA quickly shut down Hallmark/Westland and forced the recall because “downer” cows are a risk for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

In response to some of the theories that have been building, Robert Singleton, one of the two Rancho owners, told the Press Democrat the company never slaughtered animals without USDA meat inspectors present.

© Food Safety News
  • Brad Baker (BB)

    I suppose the theory of a dispute b/t the inspector and vet over cancer eye is possible. Maybe the vet was passing the animals with eye cancer (epithelioma) and systemic involement (metastasis to lymph modes or muscles/organs, wasting disease, necrosis, etc) when they should have been “U.S. Condemned.” If eye cancer was minimal and localized to the eye and no other conditions existed (otherwise normal) then they could just condemn the head instead of the whole carcass. Who knows………this is quite interesting.

  • lifeinorange

    I believe the fact of the matter comes from the experience of the inspector overall. When I worked for FSIS, I found many inspectors with a multitude of “social problems” ranging from alcoholism, drug abuse, and severe family problems, etc.. who then came to work…..with their problems and therefore missed things on the processing lines. I’m not saying “this” occurred there at Rancho, but it does happen at all phases regardless of the product being inspected. I actually enjoyed my work tenure there at FSIS. The problem that made me leave was exactly the aforementionned above from other employees. You must understand though. First of all, one doesn’t need a college degree in A & P (Anatomy / Physiology) to become employed with FSIS. It helps a great deal though if you have a strong background in the biological sciences, but most individual inspectors simply don’t possess the, what I would say, are important contributes to learn the job quickly and to be able to spot diseased areas of the product to stop it from being processed and getting into the food chain supply. The agency’s Vets though are top notch doctors and supervisors with that (DVM’s, Ph.D’s, M.Sc., MPH, MSPH, Etc.), with many years of training and then USDA training as well…..and continuous training too….it doesn’t stop just because your getting paid as an Federal employee. Advancements are made from “experience and education” combined, and the agency knows this quite well, as do inspectors. So, if one wants to “move-up”, they must get there personal “sh!t” to gether first and upmost, then the skys the limit for there career advancement opportunities. I would go back and work for the FSIS in a heart beat. But they must first control “some inspectors” at these or some of these inspection duty stations first. This is important work. The food we eat comes from the decisions these people make. Lets have the best and brightest present then to make these decisions for us all. It doesn’t take (or shouldn’t take) a “subject matter expert” to figure this one out. Company’s comply when they see that the inspectors placed at their facility are top notched people. But they believe and do the opposite when they see that the inspectors are idiots and don’t really care about their work or the product their responsible for. Yes the work is somewhat at times, grueling. But its’s also rewarding as well !.

    • BB

      So you enjoyed your tenure at FSIS and would go back “in a heartbeat…….” Then instead of leaving FSIS because of “other employees” behavior, maybe you should have gotten your “personal s*** together” and applied for promotions out of there since “the skys the limit” for career advancement. Any company (private or government) is going to have their share of employees with “social problems.” If FSIS required a college degree for all in-plant line inspectors, then they wouldn’t have enough qualified candidates to fill all of the positions in the slaughter plants. Unless it’s changed since I was hired, all FSIS requires is one (1) year of experience in a related field. Many inspectors qualify because they used to work for one of the meat packing plants.

    • tallen2007

      Some of the Vets are not be the “top notch Drs, etc etc” that you think they are. Some of them have their own social issues as well a control and power issues. Some of them could possibly be getting “perks” from plant management to allow things to slip by which causes “issues” with highly skilled, dedicated inspectors trying to do the job as required by law to protect the food supply… Companies comply when they know that inspectors follow the regs, management supports the inspectors and regs are enforced consistently without playing games.

  • daughter

    Guess they will listen to inspectors closer…hope the truth comes out tired of the nonsense lies were having to read…first hand im proud of that offline inspector

  • USisLiberal

    The “cutting their heads off” theory makes no sense. It’s my understanding that inspectors are supposed to do an ante mortem inspection, that is, a live animal inspection. Unless either the inspector was allowing them to cut the heads off animals with cancer eye, or the plant was operating on off hours without inspectors present.

    Not sure otherwise how you would get an animal with no head past the ante mortem inspection.