Beef with the USDA

This is a placeholder for a developing story. Something seems rotten … and I don’t think it will turn out to be the food.

(Update: According to an article passed along by Marmoe, the place has been “indefinitely shuttered” — and there are many complaints. Not about Rancho, but about the USDA’s actions. See this story from two weeks ago.)

The FDA went after Rancho Feeding Corporation back in January, claiming that there was one day in early January during which the inspector(s) apparently didn’t properly inspect the food going out the door. Here was the way the news was phrased back on January 13:

Due to lacking a full federal inspection, a California beef processor is recalling 41,683 pounds of beef in whole carcasses and in parts in boxes it shipped to meat markets in northern areas…

A small recall gets big

It sounded unfortunate — twenty tons of beef products were involved, most of which was organ meats. These were livers, tripe, tongue and other specialty products that are aimed at cultural groups that eat a lot of these dishes.

Now, three weeks later, the FDA seems to have suddenly discovered that there has been no inspection going on for the past year-plus. This makes no sense at all, since they’d made a previous determination weeks ago.

Also, note the schizophrenic sense of the new wording:

Rancho Feeding Corporation, a Petaluma, Calif. establishment, is recalling approximately 8,742,700 pounds, because it processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection. Thus, the products are adulterated, because they are unsound, unwholesome or otherwise are unfit for human food and must be removed from commerce, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

The implication: Had the company had “the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection” then it would have been okay that they “processed diseased and unsound animals.”

A funny smell

There are several more odd things about this:

  • Unlike many such notices of a finding of disease, this does not mention any particular disease. Compare, for example, to this notice.
  • The expression “diseased and unsound animals” almost suggests a “might be” aspect — for example, they’re assuming so simply because of the lack of “full benefit federal inspection.”
  • This report is NOT based upon any reported illnesses.
  • To the best of the federal government’s knowledge, no one has gotten sick from these products.
  • Despite the alleged lack of the “full benefit of federal inspection,” they tell you how to identify the packages in question using their inspection mark.
  • Despite this, they are not shutting the company down and hauling people off to jail for fraudulently faking an inspection mark.
  • They are recalling meat products more than a year old — which are not likely to still be on anyone’s shelves with a valid sell-by date.
  • For more than three weeks after evidently visiting the plant, writing up inspection reports, interacting with the firm, posting a notice, and updating the notice three days later with slightly different details — involving a single day’s output — they had no idea that the problem extended for more than a year?

A long history

The company seems to have been around a long time. They’ve got a three-digit Establishment Number — but the numbers go up to at least five. The corporation in its current form was established in April, 1971, but see below. The corporate founder (Jesse J. Amaral) is apparently now 76 years old. But I see a reference to a “Jesse Amaral, a prosperous dairyman” (grandfather, perhaps?) dating back more than a hundred years. From the San Francisco Chronicle of May 14, 1909, an odd, unhappy, and possibly tragic tale is hinted at:

FRESNO May Ist A Wallace wealthy chicken rancher of Kerman in this county but until recently resident of Mtn Valley arrived In Fresno today and, in company with Detectives Drenth and Fernam of the Fresno Police Department, have been scouring the city for a trace of Mary Ameral the pretty twenty four-year-old wife of Jesse Amaral, a prosperous dairyman of Mtn Valley. Up to a lata hour tonight no trace of the missing woman had been found, although it was ascertained that George B King with whom the Amaral woman left her home and family had called at the Wells Fargo Express office and secured Mrs Amaral a trunk which had been shipped to this city under the name of M Soarea Wallace. He stated that Soarea is the name of a well-known businessman of Mill Valley. King is well-known In Fresno having married a local girl two years ago and left for Sacramento. It is thought that his wife is at present in the Capitol City. Mrs Amaral is the mother of two small children. After ascertaining tonight that Mrs Amaral and King had registered at a local hotel, it was stated by the police that the couple bad left for Loa Angeles. The Mill Valley dairyman asserted that he will not give up the chase until his eloping wife is captured and returned.

The fact that this apparent ancestor was a “successful dairyman” in 1909 would explain the very low establishment number. I’d guess that the family has interesting stories.

But back to this recall: At minimum, it sounds like the work of a grossly incompetent set of FDA inspectors and administrators.

I will come back to this story. This may turn out to be a well-deserved capture of a bad company. But something about this seems different to me. I can almost hear this imagined conversation taking place:

FDA: Hey, we just discovered you supported Mitt Romney.

RANCHO: So? That’s our right.

FDA: Look at this! We just issued a recall of a day’s worth of product. You better shape up.

RANCHO: You bastards! We’re going to support Ted Cruz!

FDA: With what money? We’ll nail you with a recall from before you were even in business!

RANCHO: Bring it on!

In the meantime, the media will jump all over this, of course. It has already begun.

UPDATE (Feb 10, 9am Pacific)

As noted at the top, <img height=”17″ border=”0″ src=”” alt=”Marmoe” align=”absmiddle” width=”17″> sent along a link with more details:

Rancho Feeding may have attracted inspectors’ heightened scrutiny in recent months for processing cattle that were found to have excessive chemicals, as a press release indicated that the problems were discovered “as a result of an ongoing investigation.”

Testing of two cows slaughtered last fall from Jernigan Dairy revealed penicillin levels in their kidneys at 30 and 68 times the federal limits. (The northwestern Nevada dairy’s 45-acre property and 1,825 head of cattle are currently listed for sale at $3.1 million.) Even though Rancho Feeding was not responsible for how the cows were raised 275 miles away, the mere association with the dairy put them on the U.S.D.A. inspection service’s “Residue Repeat Violators List.”

Rancho is now spotlighted along with only 26 other processors across the country. Of the seven in California, three have had suspensions and recalls totaling over 130,000 pounds of meat since last May. The inspection service has been attempting to revamp its monitoring systems for these chemical residues after a scathing 2010 audit found the agency was “not accomplishing its mission” to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply.

If that is true — if the problem is simply a higher level of penicillin, for example — than the posting of a story about “diseased and unsound animals” is misleading and malicious. Did Rancho have a bad track record of regulatory problems and complaints? No, exactly the opposite:

All of the recalled beef from Rancho Feeding was produced over the course of one day and was shipped out as carcasses, feet, oxtail, hearts, liver, cheeks, tripe and tongue to at least 25 retail locations. The U.S.D.A. has classified the recall in the highest category, a health hazard with a reasonable probability of causing serious health consequences or even death.

Some local livestock owners have questioned the agency’s actions, regarding the recall as another example of excessive bureaucracy. The need for the plant’s continued closure remains unclear, since there have been no reports of illnesses, unsanitary conditions or inhumane treatment. The only issue seems to be missing paperwork, some ranchers said, not problems meriting a closure.

Each of Rancho Feeding’s clients interviewed for this story spoke highly of its operations, particularly in the improvements made since the decision to stay in business.

“They have been a great partner and a class act to work with,” said Stemple Creek Ranch owner Loren Poncia, who was been driving his cattle from Tomales to another plant 250 miles away. “It’s a big hit to us. It will be super hard to survive if they close.”

Mark Pasternak, who raises pigs at Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio, said the two years of swine processing at Rancho have been the best service he has ever received. Usually slaughterhouses purchase live pigs from owners and sell the meat to distributors themselves, but Rancho Feeding is one of few that do “custom” cuts, he said, returning the meat for the farmer to sell directly. During the week the plant has been closed, when he traveled to a large processor near Modesto in the Central Valley, he received meat from a pig that was not his, he said.

“It’s a scale of magnitude how much better [Rancho is]. There’s been no questions from the restaurants and butcher shops I sell to that they’re getting a really good product,” Mr. Pasternak said, adding that he has seen some plants that need to be shut down permanently, including one that left a truckload of pigs who had died during transport baking in the sun in front of the plant. “Rancho is the antithesis of that. They’re very concerned and well-meaning. For this to be happening feels horribly unfair.”

This recall marks the first time the U.S.D.A.’s inspection service has taken enforcement action against Rancho Feeding since at least 1998, the oldest data available in the agency’s online records.

My imagined conversation above seems more likely than ever.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle