More than two weeks after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the initial recall of beef products processed by central California’s Rancho Feeding Corporation, several questions remain unanswered regarding both the ongoing investigation into the processing plant and the recall itself.
The recall involves all 8.7 million pounds of beef slaughtered at Rancho’s plant during 2013, though it was not initiated until Feb. 8, 2014. The plant is the main slaughterhouse for beef ranchers around California’s Bay Area.
But the recall was not initiated because of a clear foodborne illness threat, but because the plant processed “diseased and unsound animals” and did so “without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection,” according to USDA. Any beef processed without full federal inspection is automatically considered adulterated and is thus illegal to ship.
The number of diseased and unsound animals slaughtered at Rancho is unclear. Also unclear is what qualifies an animal as diseased or unsound, as well as exactly how 8.7 million pounds of beef could get processed and shipped without the full benefit of USDA inspection – especially when it was shipped with a USDA mark of inspection.
Part of the reason so many questions remain unanswered is because USDA’s Office of the Inspector General has launched an investigation into Rancho’s facilities and practices over the past year.
Because of the investigation, the agency is unable to respond to nearly any question about the recall or Rancho’s facilities, said USDA spokeswoman Stacy Kish in an email sent to Food Safety News reporter Lydia Zuraw last week.
Following the announcement of the investigation, food safety attorney Bill Marler told the Los Angeles Times that USDA could be investigating potential criminal wrongdoing at the plant. (Marler’s law firm, Marler Clark, underwrites Food Safety News.)
“It’s really unusual for the inspector general to get involved,” Marler said. “It pretty clearly suggests there’s a criminal investigation going on. That is why both FSIS and Rancho are being careful of what they say.”
It makes sense for both Rancho and USDA to stay tight-lipped about the situation when it involves a potential criminal investigation, Marler added. It’s unclear at this point if Rancho will face any fines or criminal charges.
In the meantime, Rancho’s facilities have been purchased by Marin Sun Farms, a pasture-raised livestock farm. Rancho announced it was voluntarily withdrawing from inspection and Marin Sun submitted an application to operate a new federal beef processing establishment at the former Rancho location, according to USDA.
Food Safety News placed a call to Marin Sun Farms in an attempt to learn more details of the recall and investigation, but that call has not been returned.
Some cattle ranchers who processed beef through Rancho have asked USDA to be exempted from the recall, saying that their animals weren’t diseased or otherwise unwholesome when they were taken to slaughter. The agency has opened a review to determine whether certain producers could be exempted, according to sources quoted by the Point Reyes Light.
The latest list of retailers carrying recalled products consists of over 2,000 stores spread across 32 states and Guam.© Food Safety News