Press Democrat - Congressmen demand information about Petaluma slaughterhouse

Jul 14, 2014
News Articles
By Robert Digitale

Six months after federal regulators closed a Petaluma slaughterhouse and initiated a nationwide beef recall, two North Bay congressmen are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture for answers about the still-ongoing investigations.

“Six months has been ample time,” Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said Monday of the probes into Rancho Feeding Corp. “They should have been able to give us information, and they haven’t.”

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said USDA officials “are using pending investigations as a convenient foil for complete secrecy and radio silence. … And that is simply not acceptable.”

In January, federal investigators and Petaluma police converged on the Petaluma plant, the North Bay’s last slaughterhouse. The facility closed in February amid a recall of 8.7 million pounds of its beef and veal sold in the United States and Canada — all that was processed there in 2013.

Roughly 44,000 retail establishments were involved in the recall, a USDA official told local ranchers. Ranchers who used the plant for custom slaughter of grass-fed cattle were told that any recalled meat still in their possession was unfit for human consumption.

Even as the investigations continued, another company, San Francisco-based Marin Sun Farms, purchased the slaughterhouse and reopened it in April.

The two congressmen expressed their frustration in a letter Friday to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. In it, they noted the agency hasn’t responded to media reports “of an intimate relationship between a USDA inspector and an employee of the slaughterhouse.”

Huffman and local ranchers have said Rancho also faces a criminal investigation.

Publicly, the USDA has said simply that Rancho circumvented federal inspection rules and “processed diseased and unsound animals.”

In March, a USDA official suggested to a small group of farmers that Rancho’s operators had engaged in “deception” so widespread that the regulators had to declare all the meat processed there unfit to eat.

On Monday, a spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service received a request for comment on the representatives’ letter. The agency did not provide a response Monday.

An unknown number of local ranchers had meat from Rancho deemed unfit for sale. Of those, Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman of BN Ranch in Bolinas have more than $300,000 of affected meat in frozen storage.

The Nimans still are awaiting answers on what went wrong at Rancho in the hopes they can prove to regulators that their beef remains safe to eat.

“As long as they’re still investigating, we’re not disposing,” Hahn Niman said Monday.

Prompted by the recall, Huffman and Thompson pushed a funding measure through the House of Representatives in June to allot the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General an additional $1 million in funding. The amendment has yet to be taken up by the Senate, Thompson said.

Huffman said public disclosure matters. A federal agency shouldn’t be allowed to take action and make “so sweeping” an impact on a community “and then never tell anyone what they believe actually happened,” he said.

Thompson said the public still needs to know exactly what the health risks were from Rancho and what the USDA plans to do to prevent a repeat of the problem.

“We’re going to keep dogging it,” Thompson said. “This thing needs to get done.”