Last August, James Baker took a job as the warehouse manager of BN Ranch after receiving an offer from the owner, Bill Niman. Baker had worked with Niman at another ranch several years prior, and he quickly jumped at the opportunity to work with him again now that Niman had his own ranch.
“Bill is just a very sweet man. He cares a lot about the animals and the people involved,” Baker said. “It was easy to walk away from my last job when I knew I’d be working for Bill.”
But just six months after he was hired, Baker had to be laid off by Niman at the end of February because of the blanket recall order placed on beef from BN Ranch and a number of other independent producers. The recall, issued in early February, was for all beef processed in 2013 at Rancho Feeding Corp., the biggest slaughter operation in California’s Bay Area.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered that blanket recall after Rancho was found to have processed some “diseased and unsound animals,” potentially without a full USDA inspection. The facility is now under criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
But some ranchers, such as Niman, have resisted the recall, saying there are no grounds for recalling all beef processed at Rancho because of a few bad actors. All of Niman’s beef, for instance, was accompanied through the slaughter process by either Niman himself or his ranch manager, who say they both ensured that all proper rules of inspection were followed.
Other independent ranchers are struggling in the same boat, but BN Ranch is seen as the leader of the pack, and therefore the one with the most to lose. Niman estimates the ranch is currently holding on to 100,000 pounds of frozen grass-fed beef that he cannot ship. By conservative estimates, that beef was destined to make the ranch at least $300,000.
Before he was laid off, Baker was in charge of that beef now sitting in the warehouse. His final duty was to stack all the beef onto pallets in the freezer. Now Niman and other ranchers wait to see if USDA will relinquish their beef from the larger recall.
“A lot of labor – a lot of love – went into the product that’s sitting in there,” Baker said.
Just a 15-minute drive south of Rancho at Tara Firma Farms, ranch owner Tara Smith is sitting on her own stash of frozen beef: 8,700 pounds, which she told Food Safety News should make her around $30,000. The owners of Rancho reimbursed her $1 per pound. Niman, on the other hand, they could not afford to reimburse.
Like Niman and other ranchers, Smith was holding product to sell later, but beef can only maintain its quality for about six months in the freezer. The recall has already been going on for six weeks, and, in another month, her product will hit the six-month mark.
Smith was part of a group of ranchers who recently met with an official from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), who gave them some background on the investigation into Rancho but told them that FSIS was no longer involved now that it had been handed over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“The FSIS guy couldn’t have been more helpful even if we don’t agree with the overall recall, which is absurd,” Smith told Food Safety News. “There were no illnesses reported, but now the beef is just sitting there getting old.”
According to Smith, the FSIS official told the ranchers that the slaughterhouse was under investigation for creating deceptive and fraudulent documents unbeknownst to ranchers, and therefore nothing coming from the facility could be trusted as wholesome. FSIS could have extended the recall back further than one year if they wanted, she said.
On the day that the recall was initiated, six beef carcasses from Tara Firma Farms were among several destroyed by FSIS at Rancho’s facility.
“It infuriates me because all they had to do was test the meat,” Smith said. “You could tell it was fine.”
Smith, a former insurance executive who turned to ranching in 2009, is now using a butcher farther away, which she said is currently overwhelmed with business due to Rancho’s closure. She said she hasn’t had to lay anyone off because of the Rancho situation, but the ranch was already not having a profitable year before the recall occurred.
Owners of another Bay Area ranch, Marin Sun Farms, have finalized a deal to purchase Rancho’s facilities. Representatives from Marin Suns did not return calls placed by Food Safety News on Friday and Monday.
Smith and her husband Craig discussed the possibility of closing down their farm when the Rancho recall struck. She said USDA needs to change how it handles such recalls and work more closely with the beef producers affected by it.
“There was no common sense used by the USDA in the decision,” she said. “They didn’t have to go this far. They just didn’t.”
Baker said he’s back to looking for work since investigators have given no indication as to when or whether ranchers would be allowed to sell their frozen beef. He said that the most unfortunate part of the situation was that the animals have likely died for nothing, while the livelihoods of ranchers could be in jeopardy.
“For me, it’s time to start the next chapter,” Baker said. “This might be the thing that pushes me out of California.”© Food Safety News