Rancho Feeding Recall: Why Sick Dairy Cows Might Be to Blame

Categories: Featured, Recalls

Renowned rancher Bill Niman, pictured here on his ranch with wife Nicolette and son Miles, has several hundred thousand dollars worth of pasture-raised product tied up in the massive Rancho Feeding Corp. recall. [photo courtesy Bill Niman]
Rancho Feeding Corp., a slaughterhouse in Petaluma, California, has suspended operations indefinitely and is recalling more than 8.7 million pounds of meat that has reached 30 states. In the words of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the meat is "unfit for human food." The facility has "processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection."

A rancher who's worked for 40 years with the slaughterhouse speculates that the recall has to do with its dairy cows, and New York butchers say the USDA's number is a political exaggeration.

The recall, announced on February 8, covers a year's worth of product -- January 1, 2013, through January 7, 2014 -- and the USDA has been compiling an ongoing list of distribution centers and retail establishments that sold the meat.

Hot Pockets Marketing
Hot Pockets Facebook
A Hot Pockets advertisement posted on the brand's Facebook page, promoting the quality of its meat.
Included in the recall: Walmart hamburgers and Nestlé Hot Pockets.

Contacted by the Voice, USDA officials declined to comment beyond saying that the investigation is ongoing. Asked whether the move involved suspicion of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, aka mad cow disease), E. coli contamination, or any other specific health threat, USDA press officer Richard McIntire says there has been "no indication of any illness" resulting from consumption of the recalled meat.

Rancho -- a family-run plant that has been in business for generations and is the only slaughterhouse operating in the San Francisco Bay Area -- had been under investigation since mid-January, when the USDA announced a recall of about 40,000 pounds of beef on the basis that meat had been "produced without the benefit of full federal inspection."

A Rancho employee told the Voice on February 10 that USDA employees are based on-site and inspect every animal that passes through the facility.

"They were concerned about meat getting through without being inspected, which I can tell you didn't happen," said the employee, who declined to be named in this story because the company's attorneys have forbidden contact with the press. The employee confirmed that the plant, which employs a staff of more than 12, had suspended operations indefinitely.

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Bill Niman founded Niman Ranch in Bolinas, California, in the 1970s, and he's widely regarded as a pioneer in the movement to raise and butcher livestock humanely and sustainably. After parting ways with his namesake venture in 2007, Niman founded BN Ranch, where he raises pasture-fed cattle and turkeys. Reached by phone, he spoke of his 40-year relationship with Rancho Feeding Corp., and the fact that his entire 2013 output is part of the recall.

Speaking solely from the perspective of his own dealings with the facility, Niman says he has never had any issues with Rancho. "This is a great loss to the Northern California food community," he tells the Voice. "It's going to be very disruptive."

Niman says Rancho is the only slaughterhouse in the Bay Area. Even more important to him, the facility allows its clients to oversee their livestock from start to finish -- an open-floor policy he calls a "critical component" of sustainable meat production. "To have that access, that's really crucial," he says, explaining that his workers lead every BN Ranch animal into the knock box, where slaughterhouse staff render it unconscious, then follow the process all the way through. "We're at the back end, handling our cattle live, and we can make sure our animals are being properly butchered and that everything is done the way we want it to be done," he says.

Cautioning that he can only speculate about what happened, Niman says that conversations he has had with USDA personnel and the Bay Area ranch community lead him to believe the recall has something to do with dairy cows. Rancho, he explains, is one of the few facilities that slaughters retired dairy cows, animals that are typically processed into low-grade meat once their milking days are over. These animals, Niman says, tend to be older and not always in the best of health.

He points to one ailment, cancer of the eye, as especially common, and a red flag to USDA inspectors.

"Dairy cow carcasses that revealed signs of eye cancer may have gone into the food chain," Niman theorizes. If that's indeed what happened, he says, the slaughterhouse likely knew about it, but the blame extends to everyone involved. "A farmer sends a cow in with cancer, and he knows it has cancer-eye -- it's a growth on the eye, this is not a microbial situation," he says. "The inspectors, they know it has cancer-eye. So the farmer shouldn't have sent it, and the inspector should have caught it."

Paul Carney, a 32-year veteran USDA inspector and Western Council president of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, the union that represents meat inspectors, says an on-site veterinarian employed by the USDA makes the final call. If an inspector finds an eye cancer that has metastasized to the lymph nodes, Carney explains, he will immediately tag the carcass. At that point, Carney says, the vet must "determine whether that condition has metastasized to the point of condemnation, or if it's localized and it can be passed."

Carney says any deviation from that process automatically renders a carcass "unfit for human food."

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