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Operations at the Rancho Feeding Corp.
slaughterhouse in Petaluma are stopped after 8.7 million pounds of beef products
was recently recalled. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)
Eight years ago, North Bay ranchers got their first scare that the region's
only slaughterhouse was preparing to close its doors.
In 2006, the owners of Rancho Feeding Corp. announced plans to sell their
Petaluma processing plant to make way for a housing subdivision. A historic
housing market crash eventually scuttled those plans, but not before local farm
leaders discovered how hard it would be to replace the processing plant.
Now, Rancho faces a two-pronged federal investigation and has recalled 8.7
million pounds of beef — a whole year's worth of production. The company
voluntarily ceased operations last week and began compiling a lengthy list of
food suppliers that had received its meat.
Both the plant's owners and the local cattle industry — including niche,
grass-fed beef ranchers — face an uphill struggle to reopen the plant and avoid
a major shakeup to their businesses.
The outlook isn't promising. Those who watch the meat industry say small plant
owners have been hard-pressed to survive such massive recalls.
"In our experience, a large percentage of these very small slaughter plants end
up going out of business because they can't survive a big shutdown for an
extended period of time or (lack) the money to bring them into compliance," said
Dena Jones, the farm animal program manager with the Animal Welfare Institute in
John Munsell, a former meat plant owner and a consultant in Miles City, Mont.,
said he shares that view. He maintained that Rancho's owners already face major
costs to collect any recalled meat still held by wholesalers and retailers, then
send the products to landfills and reimburse the purchasers.
Munsell, founder of the advocacy group Foundation for Accountability in
Regulatory Enforcement, said Rancho's predicament looks all the more serious
because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has directed its Office of the
Inspector General to investigate the Petaluma processor. That office typically
doesn't get involved in meat recalls, he and others said.
"That's a whole different ballgame," Munsell said.
The USDA investigation came to light Jan. 10, when federal agents and Petaluma
police converged on the Petaluma slaughterhouse. Three days later, the federal
agency announced that Rancho was recalling 41,683 pounds of meat — all processed
on Jan. 8 — because it allegedly had not received a full federal inspection.
The recall expanded dramatically Feb. 8, when the USDA announced that Rancho was
attempting to retrieve all meat processed at the plant in 2013.
The agency's news release asserted that Rancho "processed diseased and unsound
animals" without a full inspection. The meat products, the USDA said, are
"unsound, unwholesome or otherwise are unfit for human food" and must be removed
Last week, the agency revealed its Office of the Inspector General was
investigating Rancho. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service continues
its own separate probe.
By Saturday afternoon, the USDA had expanded the recall list to 74 sites in
California and 18 in Alabama, Mississippi, Oregon, Washington and Florida. They
include small and large retailers, Latino butcher shops, grass-fed beef
suppliers, churches and nonprofit agencies.
Both federal officials and Rancho's owners have been tight-lipped about what
went on during the past year at the plant on Petaluma Boulevard North. A key
question is how the meat left the plant without a full inspection, even though a
federal inspector is supposed to be present whenever animals are slaughtered.
Robert Singleton, 77, who owns the plant with Jesse "Babe" Amaral, 76, on Monday
said Rancho had ceased operations and had undertaken the recall out of "an
abundance of caution." Singleton declined to answer further questions.
Neither owner has responded since to repeated calls for additional comment.
In contrast, plenty of local ranchers, farm leaders and others have spoken out
on the matter. Many have defended Rancho. Virtually all have expressed concern
that cattle producers would suffer a significant blow if Rancho doesn't reopen.
"It's the small-scale operators that it's really going to hurt," said Tim
Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Many of the custom, grass-fed-beef producers "were able to start their
businesses because Rancho was here," Tesconi said.
In Wine Country, beef cattle represent a sliver of agricultural production. In
2012, Sonoma County ranchers sold $12.3 million worth of beef cattle and calves,
compared to a total farm crop worth $821 million.
For decades, the industry had seen a steady decline. When adjusted for
inflation, cattle sales in 1972 today would have a value worth $45.9 million.
However, since 2007 annual cattle sales have held steady. One of the reasons
appears to be the growth of custom operations featuring grass-fed beef that is
sold to high-end restaurants and markets, as well as at farmers markets.
Farm leaders and others don't offer much hope for a new processing plant to be
built in the region.
Jeremy Russell, a spokesman in Oakland for the North American Meat Association,
of which Rancho is a member, said he couldn't speak about the receptivity of
local governments to a new plant, but "you don't hear about a lot of new ones
"There's a cost of entry that's very high," Russell said.
Local farm leaders learned that firsthand eight years ago. After Rancho
announced plans to sell to the plant to a housing developer, ranchers came
together to encourage construction of a new facility. Their eyes soon were
opened to the immense obstacles a new processor would face, including water
treatment and waste disposal.
"It's completely cost-prohibitive," said Stephanie Larson of the UC Cooperative
Extension. Besides the expense, she said, ranchers found any processor could
expect strong opposition from those saying "I don't want a slaughterhouse in my
Even if Rancho should permanently close, the plant is still the region's most
likely site for a new meat processor, Larson said. However, she acknowledged
that a housing developer probably could pay more for the land than could a meat
If Rancho permanently closes, ranchers will have to truck their cattle to
processors three to five hours away in Eureka and the Central Valley. The custom
beef operations then will have to return later to pick up the processed meat.
Some already have started that long trek, which is both costly and
"It will change the whole complexity of that industry," Larson said.
Rancho co-owner Amaral said in a rare 2004 interview that he wasn't sure what
would happen to the plant when he was ready to retire. But he suggested the most
valuable thing about the business was the land on which the plant sits.
"This area's too expensive for the help to work here," Amaral said at the time.
"It's becoming more houses, less dairy and less farmland."
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or
1971 — Jesse "Babe" Amaral files papers with the state to incorporate Rancho
1977 — Robert Singleton files papers with the state to incorporate Rancho Veal
Corporation. Subsequent news stories describe the two men as business partners.
1997 — Two Molotov cocktail-type bombs are found in February at the Rancho
plant. The Animal Liberation Front claims responsibility. In October, six
demonstrators are arrested for blocking the plant's entrances for eight hours.
2000 — A suspected arson fire in January causes an estimated $250,000 worth of
damage to three buildings at the plant. Amaral and Singleton announce a $25,000
reward for information. The Animal Liberation Front claims responsibility for
the fires and for attacks on a county egg farm and a poultry plant. In March, 10
animal rights activists demonstrated outside Rancho.
2006 — Singleton announces the pending sale of the plant to a housing developer
who seeks to combine it with other properties for a 79-home subdivision. He
plans to close Rancho in early 2008. However, the deal falls through during the
housing market collapse. Rancho stays open.
Jan. 10 — Federal agents and Petaluma police converge on the Rancho plant.
Jan. 13 — The U.S. Department of Agriculture announces Rancho's recall of 41,683
pounds of meat processed on a single day, Jan. 8.
Feb. 8 — The USDA announces Rancho's recall of 8.7 million pounds of meat
processed between Jan. 1, 2013 and Jan. 7, 2014.
Feb. 10 — Singleton confirms Rancho has voluntarily ceased operations.
Feb. 11 — The USDA releases a statement that its Office of Inspector General is
Rancho Feeding Corporation is recalling 8.7 million pounds of beef processed at
the Petaluma facility between Jan. 1, 2013 and Jan. 8, 2014.
Beef carcasses and boxes of beef products bear the establishment number "EST.
527" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Each box bears the case code number
ending in "3" or "4." The products were shipped to distribution centers and
retailers in California and several other states