If media reports prove to be true, the U.S. Department of Agriculture shut down the Rancho Feeding slaughterhouse in northern California because the facility was processing cows with eye cancer. The official reason was because Rancho had “processed diseased and unsound animals.” What happened at Rancho is the subject of an ongoing investigation by USDA’s Inspector General (IG) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern California. This past Friday, Daniel Engeljohn, who oversees field operations for USDA’s Food Service and Inspection Service (FSIS), met with area ranchers and congressional staff. Engeljohn reportedly said the investigation is going to take at least several more weeks, and that Rancho engaged in “very deceptive practices.” Ranchers who used Rancho for custom processing services are keeping pressure on USDA to remove their meat from the recall involving almost 9 million pounds of beef distributed commercially to at least 6,300 retail outlets. Dr. Mark Anderson, a University of California-Davis expert in diagnostic pathology, often sees cow eye cancer in biopsies as he looks through his Center for Food Animal Health microscope at the School of Veterinary Medicine. Anderson says the problem is “very common” and is affected by the age of the animal and how often it has been exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. Since UV light is found in sunlight, too much UV light can be absorbed and damage eye structures, including the cornea, lens, and retina. Epithelioma is commonly called “cancer eye,” says Dr. William James, USDA’s former chief veterinarian. “In cattle, it most often involves the un-pigmented (white) skin around the eye of older Holsteins. Maybe 1 to 2 percent of the older Holsteins have it at slaughter.” James told Food Safety News that if the tumor has spread to the extent that it has destroyed the eye, the animal is condemned on ante-mortem (before slaughter) inspection. “If the tumor is relatively small, the animal is tagged a ‘suspect’ and is slaughtered,” he said. “The PHV (Public Health Veterinarian) inspects it at post-mortem.” “If there has been significant spread around the eye (visible after removal of skin), or if there has been metastasis to the lymph nodes of the head, the entire animal is condemned — head, carcass, viscera,” James explained. “If the tumor is localized, the head is condemned and the carcass and viscera passed, assuming no other condemnable diseases or conditions (are found).” James said if the epithelioma has spread or metastasized, condemnation is required by FSIS because of the generalized diseased condition. “It is not a food safety concern, he said. The Jan. 14 suspension letter FSIS sent to Rancho alleges that the company sold cattle “likely affected with epithelioma of the eye.” Apparently two cattle heads with “cancer eye” were without incisions for the four pair of lymph nodes that would exist if a post-mortem inspection had occurred. There seem to be questions whether Rancho might have been getting around the system that routinely identifies and removes diseased cattle before they can get into the human food supply. In fact, epithelioma is among the major reasons for condemnations that are part of the job for USDA meat inspectors. Every month, they condemn about 20,000 head of cattle at the slaughterhouse. A recent College of Veterinary Medicine report from Washington State University puts epithelioma among the top four reasons for condemnation. WSU also had this advice for livestock owners: “Cancer eye condemnation can also be reduced by an early detection and treatment program, by selecting breeding stock with dark pigmentation or color around the eye, checking eyes whenever cattle are gathered for other routine procedures, treating or rechecking cattle with early lesions every two to six months, and sorting cattle with lesions for veterinary evaluation and treatment,” the WSU report said. Options for treatment include surgery, cryosurgery (freezing), hyperthermia (heating), or some combination. (Photo courtesy of Washington State University.)