How the Massive Beef Recall Could Be a Chance to Reform Industry

From the meaty stuffing in Hot Pockets to grass-fed beef, millions of pounds were affected.

A cow is seen at the Rancho Feeding Corp. facility in Petaluma, Calif., on Feb. 10. The slaughterhouse has recalled 8.7 million pounds of beef because it used "diseased and unsound animals" and lacked proper federal inspections, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. (Photo: Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

A cloud of mystery still hangs over the closure earlier this month of Northern California’s only slaughterhouse.

Since mid-January, three recalls have been made on meat processed at the Rancho Feeding Corp. facility in Petaluma. The USDA says meat from the facility was unfit for human consumption and that diseased and unsound animals were processed without the full benefit of federal inspection. A lot of meat was affected, including some used in Hot Pockets, the favored snack of latchkey kids and basement dwellers.

So far, more than 8.7 million pounds have been recalled. While the USDA says there have been no reports of illness linked to the meat, that’s just about all it's saying.

What prompted the action? Was it E. coli? Mad cow disease? Were USDA inspectors not on-site or compromised in some way?

Bill Marler, a food safety attorney in Seattle, says it may never be known because much of the meat has already been distributed.

“It’s everywhere—hell, it’s in Hot Pockets. What they’re trying to do is claw back as much of it as possible because there’s a risk that it came from a diseased, unsound animal,” says Marler.

The recall was sparked in January by an unknown product before being expanded, Marler says.

"Clearly they have looked at more and said there’s a bigger problem here, recalled it back to a full year, and then called investigators,” he continued.

While plenty of the meat ended up in products like Hot Pockets or was sold at national supermarkets such as Kroger or Walmart, the slaughter facility had also been used by small grass-fed-beef producers, who say they aren’t getting important information from the USDA on what prompted the recall or whether they’ll be able to sell any meat that had been processed at the Petaluma plant.

Many small ranchers worry the plant’s closure and recall will put them out of business, or they're bracing for a painful financial hit. Even Bill Niman, owner of BN Ranch, is caught up in the recall. Niman slaughtered 426 cattle at Rancho Feeding Corp. last year. Much of that meat, which is still stocked in his freezers, is now considered condemned by the USDA.

Another meat producer, LeftCoast GrassFed, published an open letter to American Grassfed Association members on Friday. In it, it wrote, “At this point, we don’t have any information from the USDA about what happened.”

“The recent incident at Rancho leaves ranchers struggling to understand why the beef we all spent years carefully raising in order to assure its wholesomeness and safety has been recalled, especially when there has not been a single report of illness or incident to justify these measures,” the letter reads.

It’s unlikely that LeftCoast and other ranchers hungry for information will be satisfied anytime soon. Yesterday came news that the U.S. Attorneys' Office was launching a criminal investigation against Rancho Feeding Corp. Rep. Jared Huffman, whose district is home to the slaughterhouse, confirmed he was on a call with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who emphasized the seriousness of the investigation.

In the middle of all this, Marin Sun Farms, which specializes in pasture-raised livestock, is hoping to buy the Rancho facility—a move that many agree could be a “game-changer” for California ranchers.

Food policy expert Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change, agrees it’s good news but says small ranchers function in a fragile system—one that lacks capacity and resiliency.

“What if they fail? We’re back in the same boat,” he says. “The one slaughterhouse for the whole north coast [of California] goes down, and the whole industry is on the brink of disaster. That same story exists in the Northeast, the South, and the Midwest. People want to see an end to industrial meat, but that can’t happen until we have an alternative meat system in place.”

The crisis could spur the right kind of thinking among powerful people, but Dimock worries that the push to find long-term solutions to lack of capacity in the meat processing system won't go far enough.

“There needs to be alternatives,” he says. “We need policy makers and business leaders to make sure the grass-fed meat and small-scale ranching industry doesn’t sputter out."

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