Updated 5:20 p.m.: A federal grand jury has indicted Rancho Feeding Corp., the Petaluma slaughterhouse at the center of a massive beef recall, for processing animals condemned by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors and processing others that were known to have eye cancer.
The indictment, dated last Thursday and embedded below, 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. Amaral pleaded not guilty during a Monday morning hearing and was released on $50,000 bail. The status of Cabrera and Corda is still pending.
In a filing Monday, prosecutors informed U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer that Rancho’s co-owner, Robert Singleton, will be indicted on a single count of distributing adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat. The filing says the U.S. Attorney’s Office anticipates that Singleton will plead guilty and cooperate with prosecution of the other Rancho defendants. The main indictment, which does not name Singleton as a defendant, refers to him only as “R.S.”
The indictment alleges that Amaral and R.S. directed employees to circumvent inspection procedures for cows that exhibited signs of epithelioma, including lumps and other abnormalities around the eyes, from mid-2012 until January 2014.
According to the indictment, Cabrera, the foreperson, swapped uninspected cows for cattle that had already passed inspection and were awaiting slaughter. Then employees slaughtered the cancerous cattle and deposited their heads in a gut bin, the indictment says. Employees then allegedly placed the heads from apparently healthy cattle next to the carcasses of the diseased cattle during the inspectors’ lunch breaks.
Employees are also said to have carved out “USDA Condemned” stamps from other carcasses. Between January 2013 and 2014 Rancho allegedly processed and distributed meat from about 101 condemned cattle and 79 cancerous cattle. Rancho paid Cabrera $50 for each condemned carcass that was distributed, the indictment alleges.
It’s rare for a recall to lead to a federal indictment, said Bill Marler, a food safety attorney.
“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.”
A single felony charge can lead to up to three years in jail and $250,000. The defendants face 11 felony charges.
Rancho shut down in February, leaving the North Bay’s livestock industry without a local slaughterhouse. Nearly 9 million pounds of beef were recalled, affecting more than 1,000 establishments in 29 states and Canada.
North Bay Congressman Jared Huffman said he was surprised the indictment focused on 180 carcasses when the recall was so large.
However, it can be hard to tell 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.
A North Bay rancher disposed of 30 tons of grass-fed meat that he was blocked from selling because of the recall. Bill Niman estimates that he lost $400,000.
While Niman has a good claim against Rancho, Marler said, 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.