A rancher who's worked for 40 years with the mega-slaughterhouse speculates that the recall has to do with its dairy cows, and New York butchers say 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.
Rancho Feeding - 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 Feeding Corp. 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 a dozen, 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 (pronouncednye-man) 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 Feeding. "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 Feeding is the only slaughterhouse in the Bay Area. Even more important to him, the facility allows its clients to personally 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 Feeding, 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."
The USDA has so far identified companies in 19 states that received the product. (None are in the northeast; the agency is updating its list of distributors and retailers on an ongoing basis.) But most of Rancho Feeding's recalled meat won't be taken out of the food chain, because most of it has already been consumed.
Meat-industry insiders say the 8.7 million pound figure is misleading and only serves to sensationalize the recall.
"Those numbers make the USDA look good, like they're doing their part," says Jake Dickson, a New York butcher and founder of Dickson's Farmstand Meats, who spent about six months working in a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in upstate New York. "But the amount of meat that's recovered is a tiny fraction of what was recalled. That's the myth of these recalls."
Joel Salatin, a sustainable-food advocate who has spent half a century farming and slaughtering livestock at Polyface Farms, his own USDA-certified operation in Virginia, says that the U.S. food-inspection bureaucracy uses recalls to "create the sense that they're really doing their job."
Mind-boggling recall figures "give Americans a false sense of security" about food safety, he contends, and small farms and slaughterhouses are easy targets because they can't afford attorneys and lobbyists to orchestrate damage control. Salatin recalls a visit with a lobbyist for a fast-food chain who laid it out for him: "'If you have an overzealous bureaucrat or unreasonable inspector,' he said, 'you don't have the resources to call me to fix it - to get that inspector fired, transferred, or called off.'"
In sum, Salatin says, "Those of us who are trying to maintain small, community food systems are being suffocated out of business by oversight, which routinely grants concessions to the big players."
In 2008 Salatin spoke at a Congressional hearing on meat-industry safety and transparency, convened after activists released video of a downed dairy cow being pushed by a forklift at a California slaughterhouse. (What followed was the largest recall in American history: 143 million pounds, some of which was bound for school lunches.) Salatin says he was floored by testimony from Dr. Richard Raymond, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety and inspection at the time. Raymond testified that economies of scale, coupled with a relative scarcity of inspectors, made larger plants more efficient than smaller ones.
A transcript of the hearing, available via the U.S. Government Printing Office website, includes testimony that corroborates Salatin's anecdote about lobbyists. Stan Painter, who chairs the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, the union that represents government meat inspectors, described how his superiors would overturn citations and reports at the behest of the USDA and the companies being cited: "Sometimes, even if we write noncompliance reports, some of the larger companies use their political muscle to get those overturned at the agency level or by going to the Congressional delegation to get this inspection staff to back off," he said.
Jake Dickson cites other federal mandates that challenge smaller operations. "The USDA makes things very difficult for a small facility," he says. "They have developed a system of record-keeping, paperwork, and testing that's suitable for very large facilities, and it's very, very cumbersome for small operators to execute."
Bill Niman slaughters his beef in the summer, then freezes the meat for distribution throughout the year. Right now he's sitting on a pile of recalled beef, most of which has already been sold, although it remains in BN Ranch freezers.
"What would really be bad - and I don't know if I can recover from this - is if we have to take 100,000 pounds or more of meat, this wholesome, wonderful meat, and take it so some sanitary landfill and dump it," Niman says. "That is a travesty to me. And that's what I think is going to have to happen."
Niman says that after seven years in business, the ranch has yet to turn a profit. "We're just about to be there," he says. "Taking this kind of hit - I doubt that our company can sustain a $300,000-to-$500,000 loss."
He's not sure Rancho Feeding Corp. can weather the storm, either. If the facility were to close down, Bay Area farmers would have to drive their animals hundreds of miles for processing. Transport increases costs and stress on cattle - two significant threats to a sustainable agricultural model, which depends on local processing and happy cows.
In New York, Jake Dickson says growing demand for sustainably raised meat will require more slaughterhouses that can accommodate small farmers who demand personal oversight. "Slaughterhouses need to rise to meet the demand," Dickson says. "That was the bottleneck of the last five years. In the northeast, it's been eased a little bit - there's, like double the slaughterhouses open now than when I opened five years ago, but there are still not that many, and most of them are already booked. We need to figure out a way to scale the system without becoming too industrial. I think there's a sweet spot."
Part of the problem, and a larger issue with the industry, is that people don't want slaughterhouses in their areas. "Even in agricultural areas," Dickson says, "people are like, 'Not in my back yard,' and they put up a lot of roadblocks."
Jeff Renfro, whose wife runs a yoga studio next door to the slaughterhouse in Petaluma, says Rancho Feeding has been the site of frequent protests by animal-rights activists and that many residents view it as an eyesore. "There's a few people in town who won't walk into our studio because we're next to a slaughterhouse," Renfro tells the Voice.
From where he stands, the plant has been a fine neighbor, Renfro says, though he adds, "They don't like outside people in there, because it's a whole other world when you go into a slaughterhouse. It's not a fun place to be."
For a current list of outlets affected by the recall, visit the USDA's food-safety news site.