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. Ultimately, the recall has impacted a vast range of beef producers and food products, affecting both small independent ranchers and brands such as Hot Pocket. 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.

  • billmarler

    This might also help put thinks in context:

    CFR › Title 9 › Chapter III › Subchapter A › Part 311 › Section 311.1

    9 CFR 311.1 – Disposal of diseased or otherwise adulterated carcasses and parts; general.

    Authorities (U.S. Code)

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    § 311.1
    Disposal of diseased or otherwise adulterated carcasses and parts; general.

    The carcasses or parts of carcasses
    of all animals slaughtered at an official establishment and found at the
    time of slaughter or at any subsequent inspection to be affected with
    any of the diseases or conditions named in this part shall be disposed
    of according to the section pertaining to the disease or condition: Provided,
    That no product shall be passed for human food under any such section
    unless it is found to be otherwise not adulterated. Products passed for
    cooking or refrigeration under this part must be so handled at the
    official establishment where they are initially prepared unless they are
    moved to another official establishment for such handling or in the
    case of products passed for refrigeration are moved for such
    refrigeration to a freezing facility approved by the Administrator in
    specific cases: Provided, That when so moved the
    products are shipped in containers sealed in accordance with § 318.10(c)
    of this subchapter or in a sealed means of conveyance as provided in §
    325.7 of this subchapter. Owning to the fact that it is impracticable to
    formulate rules covering every case and to designate at just what stage
    a disease process or a condition results in adulteration of a product,
    the decision as to the disposal of all carcasses, organs, or other parts
    not specifically covered in this part shall be left to the veterinary
    medical officer. The veterinary medical officer shall exercise his
    judgment regarding the disposition of all carcasses or parts of
    carcasses under this part in a manner which will insure that only
    wholesome, unadulterated product is passed for human food.

    In cases of doubt as to a condition, a
    disease, or the cause of a condition, or to confirm a diagnosis,
    representative specimens of the affected tissues, properly prepared and
    packaged, shall be sent for examination to one of the laboratories of
    the Biological Control Section of the Program.

    • Mollie Morrissette

      Thanks Bill.

      Sadly, I am very familiar with this gruesome law. Gruesome as to what it actually means for the animals that will probably end up consuming the condemned material.

      Here’s the kicker though, most people (not you of course!) are unaware that FDA allows for USDA condemned and inedible material to be used in pet food and animal feed.

      The problem for me is that “disposed of according to the section” can mean chemical denaturing and/or diverting to an onsite or independent rendering facility and then used as material in pet food and animal feed.

      Even the “specimens of the affected tissues” suspected of being diseased can be rendered and used as feed.

      The key is the use of the term ‘human food’: …”no product shall be passed for human food under any such section unless it is found to be otherwise not adulterated,” but, animal food now – that’s another story altogether.

      • LISA

        An action of deplorable consequences, feeding ground sick, diseased dead cows,back to cows. The same process with other animals! Ireprehenseable! The smater we become as a species,the more ignorant we become. At last, to become our own demise!

  • Mollie Morrissette

    I have a few questions for the USDA as well: Of the meat that has not been consumed, once it is recalled where do the retailers ship it to? Do the retailers condemn it onsite and incinerate it, divert it to animal feed, or does it get diverted it to renderers?

    Technically, any meat or poultry that is USDA condemned is supposed to be chemically denatured, tanked on site, or incinerated. Usually it is rendered (tanked), at which point various co-products (including meat and bone meal and animal fat for animal feed and/or pet food) are created from it and sold to end users (like animal feed and pet food manufacturers).

    The other putrid possibility is that in nearly every state an application for the removal of condemned and inedible material can be removed (legally) from an official establishment for diversion into animal feed and/or pet food.

    It would be one thing if it was incinerated or used to make fertilizer, but they get more money for it if they can sell it as material for feed.

    After contacting the USDA (yesterday) they said it wouldn’t get diverted to animal feed “if it was found to be diseased”, but they were not aware that the FDA allows for diseased material to be used in animal feed and pet food! Incredible.

  • Excellent reporting, addresses much of the confusion about this recall. Thank you.

  • flameforjustice

    There are still many stores, restaurants, consumers etc that know ‘nothing’ about the recall including the ‘hot pockets’ so many minors eat.

  • Alvin Sewell

    This recall reeks of problems. Producing and applying the marks of inspection to product that was not given the benefit of inspection is, in fact, a criminal matter. On the other hand, assigning a diagnosis of unsound product or diseased resulting in a recall is quite another. Questions such as why Foster Farms was not required to recall product that had sickened consumers is relevant given the severity of this recall that seems to be based on speculation that product may have been diseased is also relevant. Withdrawing inspection services due to misbranding and operating without inspection is a possibility. This has been the penalty in the past, along with other criminal penalties. There are many facts to be adjudicated in order for an outcome to be reached. FSIS often makes decisions based on the politics of a given situation. My opinion that is based on 15 years of working in many plants who were often subjected to differing applications of the law. As I have said before, it is very difficult for me to believe that any plant can operate for many months, outside of FSIS program surveillance. I am not implying that FSIS intentionally ignored the issue but it is simply a matter of practical sense. Plants communicate. The word gets passed around and an inspector learns things that are worthy of investigation. It is a real stretch to believe that these, allegedly clandestine slaughter operations, went on in a vacuum. Lastly, FSIS decision making in the so-called era of “modernization” is supposed to be based on science. Where’s the science in this recall? Recalling millions of pounds of product, the bulk of which has already been consumed, may be a legal maneuver to place liability rather than protect the public health. What kind of inspection system, including a compliance contingent, allows for millions of pounds of product to bear the marks of inspection without a timely enforcement action? Something is missing from this story.

  • Pat

    What kind of disease?…Hopefully not prion disease.

    • CruzOz

      If it is a prion contamination, the plant should be burned to the ground and all beef processed at the plant should be destroyed!

    • CruzOz

      If it is a prion contamination, the plant should be incinerated.