The Petaluma slaughterhouse where workers cut off the heads of cows with eye cancer and sliced the “USDA Condemned” stamps out of their carcasses was closed in February and sold to a boutique beef company after 8.7 million pounds of meat were recalled.
So far, the only persons reported sickened by the actions are those who read details of the story. Presumably, their numbers are about to grow.
A federal grand jury indicted co-owner Jesse Amaral Jr. and two employees, foreman Felix Cabrera and primary yardman Eugene Corda, of the defunct Rancho Feeding Corp. for conspiring to sell “adulterated, misbranded, and uninspected” meat. Another Rancho co-owner, Robert Singleton, was named in a separate federal document, indicating that he was intending to plead guilty.
The 11-count indictment alleges that Amaral and Singleton directed Corda and Cabrera to dodge U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors by cutting off the heads of cows with eye cancer and placing healthy cow heads next to the carcasses. Cows that had already been stamped unacceptable had the stamps removed on the kill floor.
The indictment says meat from 101 condemned cows and 79 with eye cancer was processed for shipping. Cabrera allegedly got $50 for every bad cow that made it through.
Amaral was also charged with picking up a few bucks at the front of Rancho’s operation by charging ranchers for disposing of the diseased animals it actually slaughtered and sold. Around 44,000 stores across the country bought meat from Rancho. An entire year’s worth was recalled.
Missing from the indictment was any mention of USDA inspectors, including one who was allegedly involved in a romantic relationship with an employee that was said to be consummated on-site during working hours.
At least two California members of the House of Representatives said they wanted to know a bit more than was in the indictment. “What we don’t know is probably more than what we know,” Representative Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
Representative Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) thought facts in the indictment seemed a bit sketchy and didn’t justify recalling all the meat. He also thought the USDA had a lot more “serious explaining” to do.
The indictment, which covered activities at the slaughterhouse between mid- to late-2012 and January 2014, is rare in the meat business. “There are very few criminal prosecutions generally in food cases, and there are very few and far between in meat cases,” food safety attorney Bill Marler told KQED.
Because the indictment only identified 180 diseased animals, Representative Huffman questioned whether the USDA was right to order a massive recall, close an important slaughterhouse and cost ranchers millions of dollars.
Marler suggested the indictment indicated otherwise. “From the perspective of the inspectors, if somebody’s willing to change out cow heads and remove condemned stamps over a long period of time, you have to almost ask yourself. ‘What else are they doing?’ ”