Mystery Meat: Questions Still Loom on Giant Beef Recall

Mystery Meat: Questions Still Loom on Giant Beef Recall

This February, a Northern California meat processing plant called Rancho Feed Corp. issued a very unusual recall: All of its beef for the whole of 2013 must be taken off the shelves, a haul of around 8.7 million pounds, found in 30 states. But, strikingly, the USDA has received no reports of illness for this meat.

So why the recall? It's a mystery that has been only deepening since the first announcement: Consumers are left wondering what, if anything, might have been wrong with the meat they purchased and several dozen ranchers in Northern California, who follow sustainable-farming practices, are left wondering why they're sitting on tons of meat they aren't allowed to sell.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The Department of Agriculture has been almost entirely mum on the reasons for the recall, which resulted in the closure of the Rancho slaughterhouse in Petaluma, Calif. Some  degree of silence is understandable, since not only are two divisions of the USDA investigating the plant (one of them the inspector general’s office, which usually means serious business) but federal prosecutors are also on the case.

So, why was all that meat swept up in the recall? We can’t know unless and until the USDA decides to tell us.

But that doesn’t mean the USDA can’t cough up more information than it so far has. When the recall was announced on last month, it came with a terse, frightening statement from the USDA that meat from Rancho was “diseased and unsound,” and that there was a “reasonable probability of serious, adverse health consequences or death.” The health risk was described as “high.” And the USDA noted that while it had “received no reports of illness due to consumption of these products,” it added that anyone “concerned about an illness should contact a health care provider.”

There is still no formal word from the USDA on what any of that might mean. What kind of illness should consumers be looking for? Who knows?

Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle, citing anonymous sources, reported that Rancho “was allegedly buying up [dairy] cows with eye cancer, chopping off their heads so inspectors couldn’t detect the disease and illegally selling the meat.” If that’s what happened, the USDA’s actions are that much more mysterious. It’s against federal law to sell meat from cancer-stricken cows, but that meat is highly unlikely to make anyone sick.

Producers of sustainable and organic meats that used the slaughterhouse, meanwhile, are mystified by the totality of the recall. Many if not most of them personally accompany their animals through the slaughterhouse, along with a federal inspector. There is, by all accounts, no possible way that their meat was tainted in any way.

In the USDA’s statements, there was “no suggestion of any plant-wide contamination,” noted Nicolette Hahn Niman in an op-ed in the New York Times on Saturday. She said complying with the recall will cost her business (BN Ranch, co-owned owned with the founder of Niman Ranch, her husband Bill Niman) hundreds of thousands of dollars. It will mean “destroying over 100,000 pounds of meat we had intentionally frozen throughout the year to extend our beef season.” BN Ranch and other producers are appealing the recall. All of that meat “received full federal inspections at the slaughterhouse, both ante- and post-mortem,” she wrote.

So, why was all that meat swept up in the recall? We can’t know unless and until the USDA decides to tell us.

More questions are raised by the San Francisco Chronicles report. From what the paper’s sources said, it seems as if someone at Rancho, which had been co-owned by Jesse “Babe” Amaral and Robert Singleton, was making a business out of buying up dairy cows with what is known in the business as “cancer eye” and selling the meat.

Is cancer eye prevalent enough to make for a lucrative, if illicit, business? Possibly. There is scant recent research on the disease, but only about 1 percent of dairy cows are afflicted with it, estimates James Cullor, director of the dairy food safety laboratory at the University of California, Davis. However, cancer eye accounts for nearly a third of cattle condemnations (that is, rejections by an inspector.) “You will get varying numbers from state to state, year to year and breed to breed,” Cullor says, but in general it’s a “fairly uncommon” affliction. “If those guys were making a business out of it, it’s probably not a huge business,” he says.

Still, since the disease is so cyclical, it’s possible that someone at Rancho was taking advantage of an uptick somewhere at some point over the year leading up to the recall, though it’s impossible to say for sure. And in the low-margin meat business, every cow sold is meaningful, and every cow rejected by inspectors represents a loss.

The incidence of cancer eye, which is especially prevalent among Hereford cattle and other cows with light pigment around the eyes, seems to increase during and after long stretches of sunny weather and droughts. That has certainly been the case in California for more than a year.

The California drought, in fact, makes the recall’s effect on local sustainable ranchers that much worse. The reason BN Ranch and other producers freeze some meat is to smooth out interruptions in the supply chain — both seasonal ones and ones due to bad weather conditions. So they were freezing far more meat this year than they usually do.

Some local politicians are demanding answers as well. Representative Jared Huffman, a Democrat whose district includes the Rancho facility, and Representative Mike Thompson, who represents a nearby district where many ranchers do business, have pressed the USDA for answers, but so far have gotten few. Huffman said last week that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack shot down reports that a lack of inspectors were to blame, and said, in Huffman’s words, that the investigation was focused on “repeated acts of deception by the owner of Rancho and not a breakdown in the inspection process.”

There is nothing to solid to indicate that any USDA employees have done anything illegal or even wrong. But in the absence of solid information, theories and half-formed allegations abound. The Petaluma Argus-Courier reported last week that, according to an official of the union representing federal inspectors, one inspector had, over a five-month period last year, “repeatedly” complained that her supervising veterinarian, who has not been identified, was approving “questionable” dairy cattle for slaughter.  That union official, Paul Carney, president of the Western Council of the National Joint Council of Inspection Locals, said he had reviewed documents related to practices at Rancho.

But it’s not clear that those complaints have anything to do with the recall. Other reports, such as the San Francisco Chronicle‘s, indicate that the cattle with cancer eye might have been processed without any inspection at all, perhaps during night hours. The decapitation of cattle, if that indeed happened, would seem to indicate that someone at Rancho was trying to hide from inspectors the fact that diseased cows were being processed.

Such unconfirmed theories are likely to keep circulating unless the USDA decides to be more forthcoming. Until then, ranchers are left to stew in their losses and their anger. “There’s a criminal accusation that’s been made,” and the government “should be required to say what it is,” Tara Smith of Tara Firma Farms told the Argus-Courier. “The handling of this has been abysmal.”