After one of the biggest beef recalls in history, a Petaluma meat processor is getting bought out. Earlier this month, the USDA recalled nearly 9 million pounds of beef from Rancho Feeding Corporation. More than 1,600 food distributors in the U.S. and Canada are asking consumers to return products from beef jerky to Hot Pockets. There wasn't a lot of explanation as to why, other than to say diseased cows were processed without the requisite federal supervision. But the recall and the slaughterhouse's closure put Northern California ranchers and dairy farmers in a bind. We talk with KQED reporter Mina Kim who has been following the story.
RACHAEL MYROW: So, tell us about this recall.
MINA KIM: So, Rancho processes both older dairy cows and these higher-end meats, sort of these pasture -raised beef cattle. And initially, back in January, 40,000 pounds of beef was affected. So we’re talking about a handful of stores. Then, two weeks ago, this recall expands to 9 million -- nearly 9 million -- pounds of beef processed over the course of an entire year. And so, as you can imagine, the number of stores affected has grown exponentially. We’re talking now about more than 1,500 distributors, both in the U.S. and in Canada. Nestle Hot Pockets were made with some meat that was processed at Rancho. And as a result, stores like Wal-Mart are having to pull Hot Pockets from their shelves as well as things like beef jerky, hamburger patties and taquitos.
MYROW: Now we should point out that there are no reported illnesses linked to Rancho’s meat, but the USDA is conducting two investigations, including one by its Office of Inspector General, and that’s not something that happens a lot in the meat industry.
KIM: Right, you’ve got two offices in the USDA: You’ve got Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Office of Inspector General conducting separate investigations of Rancho. And what that suggests is that the problems are very serious, and potentially that there was some illegal activity going on. Here’s how Tony Corbo -- he is with the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch, based in D.C. -- here’s how he puts it:
CORBO: Either there was not proper inspection being done, or the inspectors there were trying to do their jobs and were impeded in one way or another by their supervisors within the USDA or by the plant itself.
KIM: Now, we did get a statement from Food Safety and Inspection Service saying that the company circumvented inspections in some way, but they’re not saying much more than that. So, there are a lot of questions still swirling around this whole recall, because by law USDA inspectors are supposed to be there whenever meat is processed. So the question is: How could for a whole year potentially diseased animals be processed at this plant?
MYROW: So now new news: a well-regarded local purveyor, Marin Sun Farms, has stepped up and said they’ll buy the processing plant. Why in the world would they want to take over a plant with this kind of trouble?
KIM: Since this is the only plant in the North Bay, right now because it is closed under these investigations with the USDA, farmers and ranchers are driving hours. They’re driving to Eureka or Los Banos to get their meat processed, and it’s had a real impact not just on their bottom lines, but also on their whole philosophy of what they want to do in terms of locally raised food. Tara Smith is with Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma and she’s one of the ranchers that’s affected by this. So, as you can imagine, she’s very happy about Marin Sun Farms applying to buy this place.
SMITH: We’re all about local, and going 2½ to five or six hours away defeats a big chunk of the purpose, and so it’s just quite a relief. I just hope it takes fewer months than what it could possibly take to have that up and running.
MYROW: So the latest development, the purchase, has got to be a big relief to dairy farmers and ranchers, but Rancho Feeding Corp. isn’t out of hot water yet?
KIM: No, a USDA spokesman told us that the investigations will continue even after the sale is complete. In the meantime some ranchers, especially the higher-end meat producers, are trying to get their meat released from this recall. I spoke with renowned rancher Bill Niman, who could potentially take a $300,00 to $400,000 hit from this recall because he has about 100,000 pounds of meat in cold storage that was processed at some point in this facility in 2013. And so, there are still a lot of ways that farmers and ranchers are affected by this, even with this sale.
MYROW: KQED’s Mina Kim, thank you for talking with us.
KIM: You’re welcome Rachael.