Bad Beef from Cancer-Stricken Cows: Is That What’s for Dinner?

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Earlier this year, 8.7 million pounds of meat from a California meat producer was recalled.

Now, former owners and employees of the slaughterhouse are facing some serious charges related to the recall.

On August 14, a federal grand jury indicted Rancho Feeding Corp. on 11 felony counts, including distribution of adulterated and misbranded meat, mail fraud and conspiracy.

From KQED News:

The indictment, dated last Thursday, charges Rancho co-owner Jesse J. Amaral Jr. and two workers, foreperson Felix Sandoval Cabrera and yardperson Eugene D. Corda, with 11 felony counts, including distribution of adulterated and misbranded meat, mail fraud and conspiracy. Rancho’s co-owner, Robert Singleton, will be indicted on a single count of distributing adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat.

Inside Scoop SF highlighted some of the claims listed in the court documents, and they are quite disturbing:

  • “Some of the purchased cattle exhibited signs of epithelioma, that is lumps or other abnormalities around the eye, and were thus less expensive than cattle that appeared completely healthy.” (Page 2)
  • “Beginning in approximately mid to late 2012 and continuing through January 10, 2014″ Amaral is accused of instructing Cabrera to process cattle that had been already condemned by the USDA veterinarian. Cabrera then instructed employees to actually carve out the “USDA Condemned” stamp out of the animals so they could be processed and sold. (Page 3)
  • From January 2013 to January 2014, Rancho is accused of processing and distributed — for human consumption — 101 condemned cattle and “approximately 79 eye cancer cows.” (Page 4)
  • The indictment alleges that Rancho swapped out healthy “reserved” cows heads with the cancerous heads during the inspectors’ lunch breaks. (Page 4)
  • Rancho allegedly compensated Cabrera $50 — $50! — for “each condemned carcass or uninspected cancer eye cow carcass that Rancho distributed.” (Page 4)

Bill Marler, a food safety attorney, told KQED that it is rare for a food recall to lead to a federal indictment:

“There are very few criminal prosecutions generally in food cases, and there are very few and far between in meat cases,” Marler said. “They’re facing some severe jail time and some severe fines.”

In another noteworthy case, employees of the now closed Peanut Corp of America are currently standing trial on similar charges related to a Salmonella outbreak that was linked to their products.

As of February, the USDA had not received any reports of illness because of the recalled Rancho meat. But the agency called it a “Class I recall,” meaning it is a “health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.”

List of recalled products

Rancho was the only slaughterhouse in the San Francisco Bay area at the time (it has since been sold and taken over by Marin Sun Farms Inc., an artisanal ranch company). The plant processed meat both from older dairy cows and sold pricier beef from young, grass-fed cattle. The closure of the company earlier this year caused problems for smaller ranchers who collectively had hundreds of thousands of pounds of Rancho-processed meat in storage at the time:

For about 17 cattle, Mr. Amaral mailed farmers a falsified invoice claiming their cows had died or been condemned and actually charged them extra handling fees to dispose of the supposed remains, instead of compensating them based on the sale price, the charging document alleges.

One of the grass-fed beef producers who was impacted by the recall and subsequent fallout was BN Ranch:

Sixty thousand pounds of meat. That’s about how much grass-fed beef world-famous BN Ranch was forced to junk just over a week ago. Owner Bill Niman, a leader in the slow-food movement and the movement for humanely raised livestock, finally gave in to a recall USDA issued in January that disallowed him from distributing the frozen meat grown on his small ranch in Northern California.

Niman said 427 of his cattle were slaughtered at Rancho last year. He said “We had our own people there to make sure that the process went according to regulation and according to our specifications.” He said the USDA itself acknowledges as much:

Despite the lesser weight and different look of his grass-fed cattle (which has less marbling than corn-fed beef) and the additional oversight, federal investigators won’t grant BN an exemption to the recall.

“The only thing I could get from them was ‘How did you know that they didn’t switch the other meat for your meat,’ ” he says of his conversations with investigators. (source)

Niman lost $400,000 because of the incident. Marler said Niman has a good claim against Rancho, but it’s unlikely that there will be money left to pay affected ranchers:

“I fear these farmers will be left holding the bag,” Marler said.

It’s a shame that farmers are being impacted by this scheme, but how do we know what’s contaminated and what’s safe?

“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?’” Marler said.

There’s also a possible twist to this story, as Point Reyes Light reported:

In the wake of the recall early this year, allegations emerged about the dysfunctional relationships and power dynamics within Rancho: CNN alleged an inspector had an intimate relationship with Mr. Cabrera, the foreman, and the Light reported that the veterinarian regularly deferred to the slaughterhouse management in approving suspect cattle his inspectors tagged as unhealthy. Across the country, the limited number of food safety inspectors overseeing the nation’s slaughterhouses was starkly highlighted.

In 2010 an additional inspector was placed at Rancho, funded by the 2008 Farm Bill. But two years later, the Food Safety and Inspection Service said they reassessed the need and reassigned the employee to oversee humane handling at another establishment.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said he was “surprised at how narrow” the indictment is, maintaining it does not support the recall ordered by the USDA. He questioned why nearly 9 million pounds of meat were recalled, when only 180 cattle were mentioned in the indictment. Huffman said a federal agency shouldn’t be allowed to take action and make “so sweeping” an impact on a community “and then never tell anyone what they believe actually happened.”

“If there’s not much more than this to explain the breadth of this recall, then I think USDA has some serious explaining to do,” Huffman said.

Huffman also said “conspicuously absent” from the indictment was any mention of theUSDA veterinarian who he said was “either so negligent or complicit” in the alleged criminal activity at the Petaluma facility that the person quit after the recall was announced.

He added that the document also doesn’t mention a USDA inspector who allegedly was involved in an intimate relationship with an employee of the slaughterhouse.

From CNN:

But that wasn’t the only misconduct going down at the plant. Turns out that one of the government inspectors – someone responsible for protecting consumers from bad meat – was having a romantic relationship with a plant foreman, according to a USDA email obtained by CNN.

In the December e-mail, an assistant Rancho plant manager wrote to a USDA official to let him know about the relationship between inspector Lynnette Thompson and the plant foreman. The manager writes that the foreman admitted to seeing Thompson.

Huffman said the unusual secrecy surrounding the investigation makes him wonder if the USDA has something to hide:

“One would speculate at this point that in order for there [to] have been a deception that allowed a whole bunch of improperly processed meat to get certified for sale, someone at USDA was deceived. Something must have broken down in their process too. So, in the absence of information, I am left to believe that maybe they’re a little concerned that they dropped the ball, too.”

Marin Sun Farms, the company that bought the Rancho slaughterhouse and reopened it in April, has long been a proponent of grass-fed beef and a sustainable food system. The company also offers packing and distribution, linking each step between farm and store.

Big Agra = Big Problems

The slaughterhouse takeover by Marin Sun Farms sounds promising for people who purchase meat products from stores that use them as a source, but what about the rest of us? How can we find safer (and more ethical) sources of meat for our families?

The US meat industry is dominated by a few huge corporations that process meat at enormous facilities. In fact, four companies produce 85% of all the beef in the United States: Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill and Smithfield Foods.

There are problems inherent with this domination by Big Agra – problems that impact farmers and consumers.

Meat prices have been rising steadily since 2006 because of the power of a few companies, according to Christopher Leonard, author of the book The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. Leonard defines meat as beef, chicken and pork.

Leonard explained this “meat racket” to The Daily Ticker:

Huge Slaughterhouses = Huge Risks

Large slaughterhouse and packing facilities that process high volumes of meat from various sources carry risks including contamination from E.coli, Salmonella, CampylobacterListeria monocytogenesStaphylococcus aureus, and Clostridium perfringens. According to Sustainable Table, twenty years ago meatpacking plants slaughtered about 175 cattle an hour, but, due to increased line speeds, today plants can slaughter as many as 400 cattle per hour. This leaves little time for workers to follow steps to avoid fecal contamination.

There are alternatives to large slaughterhouses, as Sustainable Table explains:

In general, small-scale, independent slaughterhouses tend to provide safer products than most giant meatpacking plants due to the fact that they process much smaller quantities of meat and operate at a slower pace. Although consumer demand for local, sustainably-produced meats is growing, satisfying this demand is no easy task, in large part because decades of agribusiness control of the meat system have wiped out the infrastructure needed to produce and market meat from small farms. Small slaughter and processing operations have been closing across the country because of industry consolidation, low profit margins, the complexities of federal regulation, and the challenges of disposing of slaughter byproducts. Between 1998 and 2007, the total number of government-inspected slaughter facilities fell by over 20%. But despite the odds stacked against them, some small slaughterhouses and processors are finding ways to survive.

Fortunately, there are many sustainable farmers and ranchers throughout the US that care about where their animals are processed. So if you buy directly from a farmer or rancher, he or she will be able to tell you exactly where the meat was processed, and what kind of practices that facility uses.

Local Harvest and Eat Wild Directory of Pasture-Based Farms are good resources to help you find local farmers near you.

If you are able to raise your own cattle, or are interested in learning how to do so, Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef is an excellent resource.

You Can Afford Grass-Fed Beef! – The ultimate guide to saving money by eating high-quality, local meat can help you learn how to buy bulk grass-fed beef and other products from reputable farms and how to get the best prices.

Related Articles:

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“Certified Organic”: The Conspiracy Against Natural Foods

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The Alarming Truth About Supermarket Meat

Can Eating Grass-fed Beef Help You Avoid E.coli Infection?

About the author

Lisa Egan

Lisa is a researcher and writer who lives in the outskirts of D.C. She has a BS in Health Science with a concentration in Nutrition. Lisa has worked as a personal trainer and nutritionist and is a certified hypnotherapist. She enjoys helping people learn about how to improve their health.

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