Rancho Recall: The End of Sonoma County Beef?

This isn't okay, folks.

Racho Meats in Petaluma

Racho Meats in Petaluma
Rancho Meats in Petaluma

(This article was written on Feb. 10, just as the news of the recall was hitting the national press. I wrote this piece to inform people of what we knew at the time — which was very little. I hope you’ll continue to follow the Press Democrat’s great reporting on the Rancho recall here…)


The headlines are terrifying: 8.7 Million Pounds of Possibly Diseased Meat Recalled.

Petaluma’s Rancho Feeding Corp. is under fire after two recalls, the latest involving millions of pounds of “possibly diseased meat” according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). It received one of the most serious warnings, a Class 1 Recall, a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.

But here’s the thing…no one is saying the meat actually was diseased. And no one has reported any illnesses from the beef, most of which has already been sold and consumed according to producers.

The issue at hand is that the meat “did not receive a full inspection” from a USDA inspector  It didn’t get a stamp of approval from the USDA. For a year.

“We suffered through this a month ago,” said Tara Smith, owner of Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma, describing the recall of 40,000 pounds of Rancho beef in January. Smith was among the producers directly affected, losing about $8,000 of beef which she claims was organically raised and processed according to proper health and safety procedures.

“The USDA guy practically lives there. He has to be there whenever processing is going on,” said Smith. “If there was a sick cow that showed up, they would turn it away,” she added. “There should have been no recall,” she added, saying the media hype is not only unfair to Rancho, but to the many producers who now have to inform their customers of the recall affecting more than a year’s worth of meat.

She also clarifies that the meat in question wasn’t hamburger or steaks, but offal and carcasses. Meaning you probably didn’t cook any of the meat in question on your barbecue last summer. So don’t freak out. (Here is a list of retailers who carried the meat).

Worst case scenario? We lose the last USDA-certified beef processing plant in the Bay Area (we’ve already lost chicken processing), leaving many local ranchers with no choice but to haul their animals several hours away–stressing the animals, creating higher carbon footprints and crippling extra costs for artisan meat producers throughout the North Bay and beyond.

“This isn’t going to kill the [locally sourced meat] movement we have going on, but its a massive inconvenience and could put some people out of business,” said Adam Parks of Victorian Farmstead Meats, based in Sebastopol. Parks sells chicken, pork and beef from his own farm and other local producers.

Parks is among several local beef purveyors who used Rancho’s facility for “custom cut” (small scale client who can specify how the meat is butchered) and will now have to recall all of the meat they’ve sold in the past year. “Honestly 99 percent of that meat has already been consumed and no one ever got sick. But I’ll have to find the bar codes for all of the beef sold in the past year and contact all of our customers. That kind of paperwork puts a lot of stress on small producers,” Parks said.

Though there’s not yet any official accounting for what amount of the 8.7 million pounds of recalled meats is still in existence, Parks estimates that only about 100,000 pounds of meat sold between Jan. 1, 2013 and Jan. 7, 2014 (the official dates of the recall) havn’t yet been eaten. “It’s a big shock value to say 8.7 million pounds but the vast majority of that beef has been consumed,” he said.

As to exactly what might have happened, Parks echoes other local producers who say the facility was clean, had a vet on staff to monitor the welfare of animals and was family-run operation with deep roots in the community. “These folks are family friends. This isn’t a factory farm, this is a local business,” said Parks. “Did they make mistakes? I’m sure that they did. Its’ impossible to wade through all the stuff the USDA requires.”

“It seems politically motivated. It seems like the USDA is saying to Rancho, ‘We want you out of business’,” said Parks.

Whether the recall will affect his customers’ confidence, Parks says he isn’t worried. “My commitment as the owner of Victorian Farmstead Meats is to my customers. If I say the meat is good, it’s good. If I way it’s well slaughtered, it is. The bottom line is that I’m confident about my meat,” Parks said.

With a dearth of USDA inspectors this situation seems almost inevitable. The USDA’s own 2013 report regarding pig processing states that “some inspectors performed insufficient post-mortem and sanitation inspections, its programs lacked sufficient oversight and the FSIS could not always ensure “humane handling” at slaughter plants. Producers say USDA inspectors were always present during processing at Rancho, leaving the question as to exactly what wasn’t inspected.

Rancho owner Jesse “Babe” Amaral has not spoken to reporters about the closure, but Smith, who said she has spoken at length to him, claims he doesn’t even know why the USDA is doing the recall and has not received any official documentation with details of the alleged transgressions and how they might be rectified.

“I don’t believe the USDA is here to help us as farmers. They push a set of procedures that make food efficient, regardless of all the other things that matter: The nutrition of the food, the land, the life of the animal,” said Smith.  “As family farms, we’re not able to turn the tide on this,” she said.

Let’s hope a solution comes soon, because as one of the world’s leaders in local, sustainably and humanely raised food, Sonoma County MUST continue to have a way to process meat in a financially stable, environmentally sane way.

So is Rancho off the hook?  The Rancho meat processed in the last year may have been unfit for human consumption. But so far, we don’t know whether it was a clerical error by the USDA or something more worrisome. We just don’t know.

What I’m saying is that unless people have been sickened and/or there is concrete evidence of grave unsanitary or humane practices (which have not come to light), it isn’t to our benefit to jump to conclusions and cheer the closure of our last local beef processor.

Because if Rancho closes, expect your local meats to be, well, not so local. And some small, artisan beef producers to be, well, out of business. And what little local beef processing remains to either go underground and be non-USDA approved (frankly, I trust local ranchers more than large-scale corporations) or become so prohibitively expensive that factory-farmed meats from far flung countries will start looking pretty darn good.

At least that’s how I see it. What’s your take?

USDA: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), also known as the Agriculture Department, is the U.S. federal executive department responsible for developing and executing government policies that will help farming, agriculture, forestry, and food communities thrive. It’s overall goals are to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers, promote agricultural trade and production, work to assure food safety, improve nutrition and health by providing food assistance and nutrition education, and protect natural resources, and foster rural communities. (source)

FSIS: The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.

FDA: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA or USFDA) is an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services – which is one of the United States federal executive departments. The FDA is responsible for protecting and promoting public health through the regulation and supervision of food safety, tobacco products, dietary supplements, prescription and over-the-counter medicine, vaccines, biopharmaceuticals, blood transfusions, medical devices, electromagnetic radiation emitting devices (ERED), and veterinary products. The FDA also enforces other laws, including sanitation requirements on interstate travel and control of disease on products ranging from certain household pets to sperm donation for assisted reproduction. (source)

NACMPI: Established in 1971, the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (NACMPI) advises the Secretary of Agriculture on matters affecting federal and state inspection program activities.