The Bay Area’s last slaughterhouse, Rancho Feeding Corporation, has been shuttered indefinitely by the United States Department of Agriculture, following recalls of more than 41,000 pounds of various beef products last week.
Nearing its ninth decade in business, the Petaluma facility provides a key piece of infrastructure for the production of meat in West Marin and the surrounding area. The plant nearly closed in 2005, but after years of changes, including an expansion of services to pig slaughter and the possibility of organic processing, Rancho finally seemed established again. But last week’s closure marked a huge setback to the area’s ranchers and dairymen, who have been sent scrambling hundreds of miles in every direction to find a slaughterhouse that will take their herds.
Friday, Jan. 10, was an ordinary morning at Rancho Feeding, oddly placed between outlet stores and a mall on Petaluma Blvd., across the street from a tennis court and a circle of homes. (The urban area has risen up around the slaughterhouse’s historic buildings.) Rancho employees arrived, parked near an adjacent car shop or in a dusty lot, and prepared for work; cattle stirred in the holding pens, some shaded beneath a rusting, corrugated roof.
But the scene erupted into confusion when federal agents and local police burst in. Workers wondered if it was an immigration raid, since slaughterhouses are often targeted. The feds, actually from the United States Department of Agriculture, served a search warrant. Work stopped and employees were allegedly sent home.
Last Monday, the U.S.D.A.’s inspection service issued the recall, claiming Rancho Feeding produced 41,863 pounds of meat on Jan. 8 without a full inspection before slaughter, rendering it unsafe for human consumption. The slaughter occurred during a portion of the day when no inspector was present, said Megan Buckles, a U.S.D.A. public affairs specialist.
Rancho’s leadership declined to comment. Manager Scott Parks said he was too busy. “We’re trying to get up and running,” he said. “We’re working on that and doing the best we can.”
Co-owner Bob Singleton did not return phone calls left at his home, and co-owner Jesse “Babe” Amaral said he was not directly involved in talks with U.S.D.A. and did not want to speculate. In 2012 he reportedly said, “Our biggest competitor is the U.S. government, because of all the regulations. It’s getting more costly and it doesn’t make the product taste any better.”
Federal regulations require on-site inspectors to observe all animals the day before and the day of slaughter, both at rest and in motion. From under their safety hats, inspectors look for physical signs like labored breathing or a limp and more subtle indicators of “excessive excitability or severe depression,” such as circling or not responding to noises. Any abnormal livestock—the diseased, disabled, drugged or dirty—are segregated from the rest of the herd for further examination.
Another post-mortem inspection of each carcass and continual patrol of the plant’s sanitation and safety earns the raw beef an “Insp’d & P’s’d” seal.
All of the recalled beef from Rancho Feeding was produced over the course of one day and was shipped out as carcasses, feet, oxtail, hearts, liver, cheeks, tripe and tongue to at least 25 retail locations. The U.S.D.A. has classified the recall in the highest category, a health hazard with a reasonable probability of causing serious health consequences or even death.
Some local livestock owners have questioned the agency’s actions, regarding the recall as another example of excessive bureaucracy. The need for the plant’s continued closure remains unclear, since there have been no reports of illnesses, unsanitary conditions or inhumane treatment. The only issue seems to be missing paperwork, some ranchers said, not problems meriting a closure.
Each of Rancho Feeding’s clients interviewed for this story spoke highly of its operations, particularly in the improvements made since the decision to stay in business.
“They have been a great partner and a class act to work with,” said Stemple Creek Ranch owner Loren Poncia, who was been driving his cattle from Tomales to another plant 250 miles away. “It’s a big hit to us. It will be super hard to survive if they close.”
Mark Pasternak, who raises pigs at Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio, said the two years of swine processing at Rancho have been the best service he has ever received. Usually slaughterhouses purchase live pigs from owners and sell the meat to distributors themselves, but Rancho Feeding is one of few that do “custom” cuts, he said, returning the meat for the farmer to sell directly. During the week the plant has been closed, when he traveled to a large processor near Modesto in the Central Valley, he received meat from a pig that was not his, he said.
“It’s a scale of magnitude how much better [Rancho is]. There’s been no questions from the restaurants and butcher shops I sell to that they’re getting a really good product,” Mr. Pasternak said, adding that he has seen some plants that need to be shut down permanently, including one that left a truckload of pigs who had died during transport baking in the sun in front of the plant. “Rancho is the antithesis of that. They’re very concerned and well-meaning. For this to be happening feels horribly unfair.”
This recall marks the first time the U.S.D.A.’s inspection service has taken enforcement action against Rancho Feeding since at least 1998, the oldest data available in the agency’s online records.
Since January 2012, 20 California meat and poultry plants of comparable size have had their operations suspended. The median duration of the interruption was less than a week, a review of quarterly enforcement reports by the Light found, while Rancho’s suspension is now dragging into its 10th day or longer.
The longest suspension was 273 days. Beginning in March 2012, California Qi Li’s Braised Chicken, LLC, in Fremont was closed for removing tags on condemned meat; two months after that firm reopened, another suspension was issued for operating without inspectors—the same violation alleged against Rancho Feeding—though they only closed for five days.
The shortest interruption was a single day, against Yosemite Meat and Locker Service, the first of three separate suspensions in little over a year.
Rancho Feeding may have attracted inspectors’ heightened scrutiny in recent months for processing cattle that were found to have excessive chemicals, as a press release indicated that the problems were discovered “as a result of an ongoing investigation.”
Testing of two cows slaughtered last fall from Jernigan Dairy revealed penicillin levels in their kidneys at 30 and 68 times the federal limits. (The northwestern Nevada dairy’s 45-acre property and 1,825 head of cattle are currently listed for sale at $3.1 million.) Even though Rancho Feeding was not responsible for how the cows were raised 275 miles away, the mere association with the dairy put them on the U.S.D.A. inspection service’s “Residue Repeat Violators List.”
Rancho is now spotlighted along with only 26 other processors across the country. Of the seven in California, three have had suspensions and recalls totaling over 130,000 pounds of meat since last May.
The inspection service has been attempting to revamp its monitoring systems for these chemical residues after a scathing 2010 audit found the agency was “not accomplishing its mission” to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply.
Since it is often difficult to identify the exact source of meat, the auditors suggested the agency should take action to encourage slaughterhouses to be more vigilant, particularly for dairy cows and veal calves, which were responsible for 90 percent of the residue violations in 2008. In its efforts to beef up the program (no pun intended), the inspection service may have also focused on Rancho Feeding for the significant number of retired cows from Marin’s dairies that pass through its gates.
Whatever the reason for Rancho’s closure—whether because management committed a deliberate wrong or because the plant was a casualty as the U.S.D.A. demonstrated its regulatory power—a whole industry of alternative meat production in the North Bay has once again been knocked off-kilter.
Some farms have already taken an economic hit from the suspension. Those who continued with slaughter paid for extra fuel to drive to Central Valley slaughterhouses. One Tomales rancher paid twice as much: he made the trek but he was so dismayed by the plant’s quality that he drove his pigs back to his ranch.
Others who are choosing to wait for Rancho say they are missing out on the profits from feeding hungry customers. Susan Brady, of Freestone Ranch in Valley Ford, said the suspension has delayed her carefully planned schedule, meaning that when Rancho reopens, she may not have a chance to sell the surplus to butchers and markets that already have a full supply. Not to mention that Rancho itself has lost money from reimbursing clients who had meat condemned, Ms. Brady said.
But besides the calculation of dollars and cents, the closure has prompted existential questions about the sustainability of local agriculture, as the region’s infrastructure has been so quickly undermined.
“All of these people are trying to make something more sustainable, more local, more organic, more humane,” said Nicolette Hahn-Niman, an author and environmental lawyer whose husband, Bill Niman, owns BN Ranch in Bolinas. “But very rarely do people say we need more slaughter. It’s not something to get excited about, but for farmers and ranchers, it is a huge part of the story.”
Small, local ranchers provide consumers with a product they can trust, rarely and sometimes never using chemicals or drugs and feeding cows on grass. Having a relationship with a local processor is key to accountability to consumers, Ms. Hahn-Niman said. After weeks of searching, her husband, who is “extremely particular,” chose to process his cattle at Rancho because they allowed his team to supervise from the floor alongside employees and inspectors, she said.
As the epicenter of the “foodie” movement, having a slaughterhouse that shares the values of West Marin’s forward-thinking farmers is essential.
“The ideal is to get as close to slaughtering on the ranch as possible. It’s the most humane, realistic and best for the environment,” Mr. Pasternak said. “But if you have to haul the animals 300 miles to get slaughtered and back, then what’s the point of farming locally? You just pretty much killed all the benefits.”