We know that the 8.7 million-pound beef recall touched everything from Hot Pockets to grass-fed steaks, that “unsound” animals sparked the USDA action, that the shuttered slaughterhouse is being purchased by a local rancher. We know that there’s a criminal investigation under way. But the biggest question in the convoluted Rancho Feeding Corp. story has remained unanswered: What kind of problem or illness was discovered in the slaughtered cattle?
Today, the San Francisco Chronicle has a story, based on interviews with anonymous sources, that claims to answer the question. According to the Chronicle, “Rancho was allegedly buying up cows with eye cancer, chopping off their heads so inspectors couldn't detect the disease and illegally selling the meat, the sources said.”
The tipsters said that the illicit slaughter was happening after-hours, and that the carcasses, which showed no signs of cancer or ill health, were able to pass as good beef and were sold under the Rancho label. The reason for the mass recall, it appears, was to ensure that none of the eye-cancer beef was mixed in with the meat from ranchers such as Bill Niman and other clients who brought their animals to the facility. There's no inherent health risk to eating beef from animals that had eye cancer, and there have yet to be any reports of illnesses related to the recall.
Rep. Jared Huffman told the Chronicle that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack promised him his team would talk to ranchers who say they “did segregate their beef and can demonstrate that it could not have commingled with improperly processed meat,” according to the Chronicle.
With dedicated grass-fed-beef producers like Marin Sun Farms, which is in the process of buying Rancho Feeding, forced to shift to grain and pricey forage to feed their cattle owing to the drought, 2014 is promising to be a difficult year for California ranchers. On top of that, losing their entire stock from the prior year because of the recall could be devastating. Niman, for example, says he would be out $400,000 if the USDA blocks him from selling the 100,000 pounds of BN Ranch beef affected by the recall.