Did The USDA Fail To Prevent Huge Meat Recall?

The case surrounding Rancho Feeding Corp., the California slaughterhouse involved in recalling 8.7 million pounds of beef and veal it processed in 2013, is starting to get messy. 

In an with The Press Democrat, Paul Carney, president of the Western Council of the National Joint Council of Inspection Locals, the federal meat inspectors union, said that the federal food inspector at Rancho repeatedly criticized practices inside the Petaluma slaughterhouse now at the center of an international meat recall and an ongoing criminal investigation.

The inspector at Rancho thought her supervising veterinarian had approved “questionable” dairy cows for slaughter during a five-month period last year, according to a union official who said he has reviewed documents detailing the inspector's accounts. The federal inspector also alleged that employees at the Petaluma plant had mistreated animals, improperly discharged wastewater and subjected her to harassment.

“She would tag animals for the PHV (public health veterinarian) and what she thought sometimes were cancerous, the vet would pass,” said Carney. “And she can't question the vet.”

The food inspector also said that her supervising veterinarian ignored many alleged violations of federal regulations that she had identified and brought to his attention, Carney said. The veterinarian refused to write up many of the alleged violations or allow her to write the noncompliance reports, Carney said.

Robert Singleton, one of Rancho's co-owners, said the company did not attempt to get around inspection rules and never harvested animals without an inspector on site. He denied any mistreatment of the USDA inspector.

“No, she wasn't harassed,” Singleton said.

The inspectors union has tussled for years with the USDA over food safety protocols. The rules, according to union leaders, give slaughterhouse officials too much control over the safety and inspection process. More recently, the inspectors union has said staffing levels are unacceptably low.

So did the USDA know and do nothing about it?

The USDA has said Rancho “processed diseased and unsound animals” without a full inspection, but it's the description of the meat in question that is telling, said Seattle attorney Bill Marler, a specialist in food safety cases.

“The words used — 'diseased' and 'unsound' — usually what that means is that there were animals that were non-ambulatory, they were downers, with visible defects, and that somehow they made it on to the kill floor without inspection,” said Marler, who publishes Food Safety News, an online news site.

The federal food inspector assigned to Rancho repeatedly questioned the practices inside the plant over a five-month period prior to November, according to Carney. He declined to reveal the inspector's name or provide copies of the documents detailing her accounts. He said the documents include correspondence between the inspector and her supervising veterinarian, and a sheaf of complaints about the inspector made by Rancho management to the USDA. 

The USDA has not yet responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Press Democrat for inspection reports and other records related to the Rancho plant.

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