Sixty thousand pounds of meat. That’s about how much grass-fed beef world-famous BN Ranch was forced to junk just over a week ago. Owner Bill Niman, a leader in the slow-food movement and the movement for humanely raised livestock, finally gave in to a recall USDA issued in January that disallowed him from distributing the frozen meat grown on his small ranch in Northern California.
The destroyed beef is the latest turn in a months-long drama. After the recall of 8.7 million pounds in February, the closure of Rancho Feed Corporation in Petaluma, Calif., posed a significant threat to the resurgent local ranching economy. Then came details of the illegal activity that reportedly sparked the recall: cattle with eye cancer being surreptitiously slaughtered and hidden among the carcasses of healthy animals.
A criminal indictment charging three former Rancho Feed employees reveals further details of what went on at the slaughterhouse. Rancho Feed president and general manager Jesse Amaral Jr.; Felix Cabrera, who ran the kill floor; and Eugene Corda, who ran the yards, were charged with illegally processing and selling 79 cows with eye cancer and 101 cows that were condemned by inspectors.
The indictment, unsealed yesterday, charges that Cabrera, under Amaral’s direction, “directed kill floor employees to…process the carcasses” as if they were healthy animals. The heads of cattle with eye cancer were allegedly swapped out for those of healthy animals during inspectors’ lunch breaks. Cabrera was allegedly paid $50 for each carcass the company was able to slip past inspectors and distribute.
Such an indictment is rare in a case like this, according to food safety attorney Bill Marler. “There are very few criminal prosecutions generally in food cases, and there are very few and far between in meat cases,” Marler told KQED. “They’re facing some severe jail time and some severe fines.”
Niman and supporters believe the USDA threw the baby out with the bathwater in forcing Niman to send his meat to the rendering plant. When his 427 cattle were slaughtered at Ranch last year, he said, “We had our own people there to make sure that the process went according to regulation and according to our specifications.” He said the USDA itself acknowledges as much. (The department has not responded to a request for comment.) Despite the lesser weight and different look of his grass-fed cattle (which has less marbling than corn-fed beef) and the additional oversight, federal investigators won’t grant BN an exemption to the recall.
“The only thing I could get from them was 'How did you know that they didn’t switch the other meat for your meat?' ” he says of his conversations with investigators.
Though he's losing $400,000 as a result of the feds' action, Niman addressed the loss in philosophical terms.
“It’s borderline an immoral thing to do, to kill animals for food…and to basically throw it away,” he said. “To me that’s an immoral thing to do.”
But not all of the meat went to waste: Niman’s freezer is stocked, and so are the freezers of his family and friends.
“I don’t think it’s legal,” he said of giving away the recalled meat, “but I’m willing to face the consequences of doing that. If they want to prosecute me for that, bring it on.”