Straight-up fraud and conspiracy, mostly to get cows with “cancer eye” past USDA inspectors so they could be processed along with healthy animals, were allegedly behind the demise of the Petaluma, CA, slaughterhouse that closed in February during a recall of nearly 9 million pounds of beef.
There is no hint in the indictment unsealed Monday of any misbehavior on the part of USDA meat inspectors or short-staffing of the facility by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Those were among the theories being floated in the aftermath of the Rancho Feeding Corp. closure.
Instead, the federal indictment names former Rancho co-owner Jesse J. (Babe) Amaral Jr., foreman Felix Sandoval Cabrera, and yardman Eugene D. Corda in connection with a total of 11 felonies involving mail fraud and conspiracy, along with the placing of adulterated and misbranded meat into interstate commerce.
Amaral pleaded not guilty and was freed on a $50,000 cash bond. If the government is successful in prosecuting him on all 11 charges, the maximum penalties could total 103 years in prison and fines of $1.3 million.
Separately, the government has charged the other Rancho co-owner, Robert Singleton, with a single count of distribution of adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat. Prosecutors said Singleton “will plead guilty and cooperate in the prosecution of the indictment.”
According to the indictment, Rancho was acquiring cattle with signs of epithelioma, meaning lumps or other abnormalities around the eye, that were less expensive than healthy animals.
Corda, the yardman, would move cattle with eye problems to a pen known as “9A.” Then either Amaral or Singleton would decide if and when cattle in “9A” would be designated for inspection and slaughter.
Cattle passing the ante mortem inspection would be moved to the kill floor, where they were knocked and slaughtered, and then subjected to post mortem inspection.
In mid-2012, Amaral allegedly began instructing employees to process cattle that the USDA veterinarian had condemned in the ante mortem inspection. According to the indictment, Cabrera ordered employees to cut the “USDA Condemned” stamps out of the carcasses and continue processing them for transport, sale and distribution.
The scheme to get cows with eye cancer around inspectors began at about the same time, the indictment states. Cabrera swapped out cows with cancers with animals that had already passed inspection and were awaiting slaughter. Employees then disposed of the heads of cows with cancerous eyes into a “gut bin” and placed the heads of healthy animals next to the carcasses when USDA inspectors were on lunch breaks.
According to the indictment, Rancho processed meat from 101 condemned cattle, including 79 with “cancer eye,” during the period. The foreman was allegedly paid $50 for each condemned carcass that was distributed.
The Petaluma facility is now operating under the ownership of a group of investors led by Marin Sun Farms CEO David Evans. It is the only facility of its kind in California’s Northern Bay Area with a market reach for cattle that includes Northern California and Nevada.© Food Safety News