At Rancho, inspector’s concerns were repeatedly ignored

05/08/2014

Newly disclosed documents about Rancho Feeding Corporation, the Petaluma slaughterhouse that closed operations after a sweeping recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef, reveal a cozy relationship between the plant management and the highest-ranking Food Safety and Inspection Service employee assigned to the plant.

One inspector loudly called attention to a litany of problems, including harassment, inhumane handling and cursory inspections, but her disruption of the status quo led to her transfer to another facility. The records provided by the United States Department of Agriculture through a Freedom of Information Act request and by the inspectors union are messy—weighted with legal references, mired by typos—and are often contradictory, but in their entirety, they shed light on the procedural breakdowns and personality differences that ensnared West Marin’s cattle ranchers and cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Unlike larger counterparts in the Central Valley, Rancho Feeding was a small operation, slaughtering 12,700 animals in a given six-month period, two-fifths of those dairy cattle. Since the recall, local livestock owners have mentioned the high-quality service the slaughterhouse provided, an impression that seems to be mirrored in U.S.D.A. inspection reports. 

On January 28, 2013, as part of an annual routine visit to check humane handling, for example, a veterinarian wrote a glowing assessment. Although the plant is over 50 years old, its design and handling practices have been adapted to comply with regulations and “minimize excitement, discomfort and injury to the animals,” the vet wrote. “Rancho Feeding Corp. has a robust systematic approach to humane handling.” On another third-party audit of animal welfare in August 2012, the slaughterhouse scored 97 percent, with points docked only because it lacked a humane handling mission statement. 

Since at least 1998, Rancho Feeding had faced no major disciplinary action by the U.S.D.A. before the two recalls this January. The company had only 12 noncompliance reports written between February and September of last year. All but one was corrected, records show, and most were for minor violations like holes in floors, nails protruding from a fence post, a gap at the bottom of a door that allowed 13 flies into a processing room and two instances of dried blood from the previous day’s slaughter. 

But new documents concerning the atmosphere in the slaughterhouse and the relationships between inspector Lynnette Thompson; her boss, veterinarian Ernesto Lardizabal; and Rancho’s quality control manager Scott Parks may explain the disconnect between why so few reports were written and how the same year’s worth of beef could all be condemned as “unwholesome and unfit for human consumption”: Dr. Lardizabal allegedly ignored warnings of cancer in cows and discouraged her from writing reports.

Ms. Thompson was assigned to Rancho in late 2012. She was born in Coalinga, a dusty city surrounded by oil fields, feedlots and a state prison, off Interstate 5 southwest of Fresno. Her father worked in the meat industry, and Ms. Thompson often spoke of how she hoped to impress him by succeeding at her job. 

“My job is my life and I LOVE the USDA,” she wrote in late October in response to accusations against her by Rancho’s management. “I try to do my best every day. I want to learn and be good at what we do here for USDA. I feel I make food safer for the public.”

An Oct. 28 letter Mr. Parks sent to Dr. Adil Chaudry, the frontline supervisor for all slaughter and butcher facilities on the Petaluma Circuit, appears to have initiated an 

investigation into Ms. Thompson’s work. The six-page letter points to an increasingly antagonistic relationship that began within a month of her arrival. Shortly after, the district office transferred her to another facility. Due to protections in the Privacy Act, federal officials said they could not comment on the details. But if Ms. Thompson was removed for the reasons enumerated in Mr. Parks’s complaint, it was not because she was not doing her job; if anything, she was doing it too zealously.

“Her actions and expectations of our facility have clearly fallen outside the scope of her duty in multiple examples. … She has been an intimidating regulatory authority,” Mr. Parks wrote. “There have been numerous times that she questions our procedures or miss interprets [sic] regulations and requires me to take time away from my [quality control] job to research, make phone calls and e-mails to prove to her that we are doing nothing wrong (which has been every time). … Thompson’s normal mode of interaction conveys mistrust and disrespect as a standard approach, leaving those she interacts with feeling as though they have done something wrong, without that even being the case most of the time.”

This week, CNN alleged Ms. Thompson had a romantic relationship with the harvest foreman based on an email from an assistant plant manager to the U.S.D.A., in which the foreman admitted “he went to the trailer three different times and they were intimate.” The scandalous detail, which a lawyer for owner Jesse “Babe” Amaral told CNN was not connected to the recall, distort the following order of events: did the discovery of the romance prompt Mr. Parks to seek her transfer out of the facility, or was the affair revealed on prime-time television as a way of discrediting her complaints?

The first incident Mr. Parks documented was Dec. 21, 2012, and he even noted the time as 4:50 p.m. when one employee loudly shouted and upset Ms. Thompson. Mr. Parks wrote the employee was responding to something on the radio and “this radio conversation” did not involve her. Ms. Thompson later wrote that she felt it was a sexual innuendo and felt scared, still so fresh on the job. She reported the incident to her supervisor, Dr. Lardizabal, and he told her to forget about it.

By summer, Ms. Thompson felt the plant management was obstructing her from completing inspections. On July 18, Ms. Thompson inspected the freezers twice in the morning. In the afternoon, she asked for the key to inspect the freezers again. Mr. Parks said this took place at 4:20 p.m., after he left for the day because his brother had been hospitalized. In a noncompliance report, Ms. Thompson said she asked three people for the key at 2:20 p.m., but after they told her, “No,” or “Do it tomorrow,” she tagged the freezers as rejected for not meeting inspection requirements.
“We needed frozen product for our deliveries and the trucks need to get on the road by 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.,” Mr. Parks wrote. “Though we certainly understand the need to make all such storage areas available for inspection personnel upon request, the day in question was not an ordinary day.”

A week later, on July 25, Mr. Parks again complained about Ms. Thompson performing too many “zero-tolerance” inspections, meaning checks for any fecal material. Mr. Parks confronted her, and Ms. Thompson allegedly said she was going to find something. “She operates outside the normal scope of her duties, determined to find something wrong on a daily basis,” Mr. Parks wrote. “She has told me many times that she has to prove to her father that she can do her job which seems to motivate her in going overboard.” Ms. Thompson maintains she only did one “zero-tolerance” inspection that day. Within a month, on August 15, fecal contamination, “olive green in color with a pasty consistency” was found on two halves of a carcass, according to a noncompliance report.

The next day, on July 26, as she did regularly, Ms. Thompson asked to see Rancho’s mandatory protocols. Mr. Parks asked her why she needed to see it so often when others reviewed it “only a couple times a week or less.” Ms. Thompson said he refused to let her see the plan. “I was not suggesting that she could not look at it upon request, I was simply seeking clarification based on my long time past experiences with other inspectors,” Mr. Parks explained. Ms. Thompson returned to the office 30 minutes later with the U.S.D.A. regulation justifying her responsibility to inspect the plan. She allegedly thrust it on his desk and said, “Do you want to see my badge, too?”

Another month passed. On August 26, at 2:30 p.m. Ms. Thompson was looking at a carcass on the kill floor and said that most of the culled dairy cows that Rancho killed had cancer and should be condemned. Inspectors can only tag animals for review by the veterinarian, not condemn carcasses themselves, so Ms. Thompson complained frequently that Dr. Lardizabal was sending unhealthy cows into the food supply. But according to CNN, Mr. Parks said he trusted the harvest foreman, who had been at the plant for decades and was allegedly intimate with Ms. Thompson. 

“The majority of our carcasses end up at Jack-in-the-Box and if they stop taking our products we will be out of business,” Mr. Parks wrote. “Lynnette Thompson could put us out of business with her lack of humane handling knowledge and slaughter procedures. To put the future of Rancho in her hands is clearly something we are not comfortable with.”

These records were all produced in the months before the recalls. They show an inspector suspicious of the management’s transparency and her own supervisor’s competence. They tell nothing of the “ongoing investigation” food safety inspectors later cited in initiating a recall—perhaps a result of Ms. Thompson’s complaints or Mr. Parks’s accusations against her—nor of the U.S.D.A.’s decision to include such a massive quantity of meat. But they do show clear warnings about spent dairy cows afflicted with cancer and failures on the part of the food safety inspection service to address them for months.

In early October, days before Mr. Parks wrote his letter, Rancho Feeding was spotlighted on a list of repeat violators for two cows whose kidneys tested at 30 and 68 times the federal limit for penicillin, indicating the animals were being given antibiotics for sickness. In January, federal agents arrived at the plant with a warrant and suspended operations. The reason? Cattle that bypassed inspection “were likely affected with epithelioma of the eye (eye cancer),” a U.S.D.A. letter said.

Dr. Lardizabal retired close to the date of the recall. Mr. Parks, along with 12 of the 14 former Rancho employees, still work at the slaughterhouse, now under the ownership of Marin Sun Farms. 

Since the Light first requested documents related to the recall nearly four months ago, the U.S.D.A. has produced only 42 pages and denied an appeal for expedited processing, for which the Light is seeking mediation. 

Elected officials have repeatedly criticized the official silence. “This is radio silence from the federal agency that did something very significant in my district that is affecting lots and lots of people,” Rep. Jared Huffman told CNN. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” 

On Monday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the House subcommittee responsible for food and drug safety, called for an “independent investigation” and penalties for anyone “who knowingly and willingly put American families at risk.” “I am deeply concerned that the Food Safety Inspection Service failed to prevent this deception from happening,” she said.