February’s recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef from the Rancho Feeding Corp. slaughterhouse in Petaluma, CA, is turning both ripe and risqué. It’s ripe for a grand jury indictment and risqué because recently reported aspects of the case involve a romantic relationship between the plant foreman and a federal meat inspector. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in January discovered the Petaluma slaughterhouse processed beef that was “unfit for human food.” FSIS shut the plant down and called for recall of an amount equal to a year’s worth of the plant’s production. Apparently any of it might have escaped USDA inspection. Most likely, the plant was processing cows with cancerous eye tumors without the inspectors knowing and/or caring. It’s not clear if the practice was widespread or more incidental. USDA veterinarians are required to prevent cows with more developed tumors from being slaughtered for human food. However, the actual food safety danger is not clear. Let’s revisit Rancho with few questions and answers: Q. What about the recall? A. It remains “active,” meaning that FSIS has not yet reported on the amount of beef recovered by the recall. Usually in recalls like this one, that amount will be pretty small. Q. Has the slaughterhouse resumed operation? A. Yes, but it’s under new ownership. Marin Sun Farms purchased the Petaluma slaughterhouse from Rancho Feeding Corp. and re-opened it on April 7. “Everything has been rewritten, re-inspected, reinvested in, with a completely new mission and outlook on how to do business and how to bring product to Bay Area consumers,” said David Evans, Marin Sun’s chief executive officer. Q. What about those reports of risqué behavior? A. Chris Frates and Shannon Travis, investigative reporters for CNN, made this story a little sexier than it might have been by documenting the existence of an illicit romance reportedly going on between the plant foreman and a meat inspector. Like earlier reports from a union official about possible disputes between a meat inspector and the USDA veterinarian assigned to the plant, it’s unclear how personal relationships in the relatively small facility played into the apparent fact that diseased beef was processed without the benefit of inspection. Q. Is there going to be an independent investigation? A. FSIS turned its findings over the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, which is investigating alongside the Office of the U.S. District Attorney for Northern California. USDA routinely gets assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and likely is taking the case before a federal grand jury. In other words, it’s about an independent as it gets, but it does take time. Q. Who are the likely targets of the investigation? A. Jesse Amaral and Robert Singleton, who owned Rancho Feeding Corp. at the time of the recall, are at the top of the list. Both men are Petaluma residents. Plant employees who were in the know, meaning they were likely part of the conspiracy that pulled off the fraud, would also be candidates for indictment. And, according to the CNN investigation, the feds have caught employees on tape fabricating stamps of approvals and substituting cancerous cow heads with healthy ones. It could take a while, but this one does seem “ripe” for a federal indictment. Q. Who was hurt? A. With no illnesses yet associated with the recall and becoming less likely as time passes, the focus is on economic losses. Rancher Bill Niman, whose BN Ranch hired Rancho to process 100,000 pounds of prime, grass-fed beef that he now cannot sell per FSIS recall rules, is out about $400,000. And, with its personnel and policies under the microscope, FSIS might also be feeling some pain.