Point Reyes Light – Food Safety Website https://www.storkxx.com Breaking news for everyone's consumption Tue, 31 Jul 2018 02:35:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.3.4&lxb_maple_bar_source=lxb_maple_bar_source https://www.storkxx.com/files/2018/05/cropped-siteicon-32x32.png Point Reyes Light – Food Safety Website https://www.storkxx.com 32 32 Rancho Documents Reveal an Interconnected Chain of Conflict https://www.storkxx.com/2014/05/draft-at-rancho-inspectors-concerns-were-repeatedly-ignored/ https://www.storkxx.com/2014/05/draft-at-rancho-inspectors-concerns-were-repeatedly-ignored/#comments Sat, 10 May 2014 05:01:10 +0000 http://www.storkxx.com/?p=90782 Continue Reading]]> (This article written by Christopher Peak was published May 8, 2014, in the Point Reyes Light. Peak also took the photos.) Newly disclosed documents about Rancho Feeding Corporation, the Petaluma slaughterhouse that closed down operations after a sweeping recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef, reveal a cozy relationship between the plant management and the highest-ranking Food Safety and Inspection Service employee assigned to the plant.
One inspector loudly called attention to a litany of problems, including harassment, inhumane handling and cursory inspections, but her disruption of the status quo led to her transfer to another facility. The records provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through a Freedom of Information Act request and by the inspectors’ union are messy — weighted with legal references, mired by typos — and are often contradictory, but, in their entirety, they shed light on the procedural breakdowns and personality differences that ensnared West Marin’s cattle ranchers and cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unlike larger counterparts in the Central Valley, Rancho was a small operation, slaughtering 12,700 animals in a given six-month period, two-fifths of those dairy cattle. Since the recall, local livestock owners have mentioned the high-quality service the slaughterhouse provided, an impression that seems to be mirrored in USDA inspection reports. On Jan. 28, 2013, as part of an annual routine visit to check humane handling, for example, a veterinarian wrote a glowing assessment. Although the plant is more than 50 years old, its design and handling practices have been adapted to comply with regulations and “minimize excitement, discomfort and injury to the animals,” the vet wrote. “Rancho Feeding Corp. has a robust systematic approach to humane handling.” On another third-party audit of animal welfare in August 2012, the slaughterhouse scored 97 percent, with points docked only because it lacked a humane handling mission statement. Since at least 1998, Rancho had faced no major disciplinary action by USDA before the two recalls this January. The company had only 12 noncompliance reports written between February and September of last year. All but one was corrected, records show, and most were for minor violations such as holes in floors, nails protruding from a fence post, a gap at the bottom of a door that allowed 13 flies into a processing room and two instances of dried blood from the previous day’s slaughter. But new documents concerning the atmosphere in the slaughterhouse and the relationships between inspector Lynnette Thompson; her boss, veterinarian Ernesto Lardizabal, and Rancho’s quality control manager Scott Parks may explain the disconnect between why so few reports were written and how the same year’s worth of beef could all be condemned as “unwholesome and unfit for human consumption”: Lardizabal allegedly ignored warnings of cancer in cows and discouraged her from writing reports. Thompson was assigned to Rancho in late 2012. She was born in Coalinga, a dusty city surrounded by oil fields, feedlots and a state prison, off Interstate 5 southwest of Fresno. Her father worked in the meat industry, and Thompson often spoke of how she hoped to impress him by succeeding at her job.
“My job is my life and I LOVE the USDA,” she wrote in late October in response to accusations against her by Rancho’s management. “I try to do my best every day. I want to learn and be good at what we do here for USDA. I feel I make food safer for the public.” An Oct. 28 letter Parks sent to Dr. Adil Chaudry, the frontline supervisor for all slaughter and butcher facilities on the Petaluma circuit, appears to have initiated an investigation into Thompson’s work. The six-page letter points to an increasingly antagonistic relationship that began within a month of her arrival. Shortly after, the district office transferred her to another facility. Due to protections in the Privacy Act, federal officials said they could not comment on the details. But if Thompson was removed for the reasons enumerated in Parks’ complaint, it was not because she was not doing her job; if anything, she was doing it too zealously. “Her actions and expectations of our facility have clearly fallen outside the scope of her duty in multiple examples. … She has been an intimidating regulatory authority,” Parks wrote. “There have been numerous times that she questions our procedures or miss interprets [sic] regulations and requires me to take time away from my [quality control] job to research, make phone calls and e-mails to prove to her that we are doing nothing wrong (which has been every time). … Thompson’s normal mode of interaction conveys mistrust and disrespect as a standard approach, leaving those she interacts with feeling as though they have done something wrong, without that even being the case most of the time.” This week, CNN alleged that Thompson had a romantic relationship with the harvest foreman based on an email from an assistant plant manager to USDA, in which the foreman admitted “he went to the trailer three different times and they were intimate.” The scandalous detail, which a lawyer for owner Jesse “Babe” Amaral told CNN was not connected to the recall, distorts the following order of events: Did the discovery of the romance prompt Parks to seek her transfer out of the facility, or was the affair revealed on prime-time television as a way of discrediting her complaints? The first incident Parks documented was Dec. 21, 2012, and he even noted the time as 4:50 p.m. when one employee loudly shouted and upset Thompson. Parks wrote that the employee was responding to something on the radio and “this radio conversation” did not involve her. Thompson later wrote that she felt it was a sexual innuendo and felt scared, still so fresh on the job. She reported the incident to her supervisor, Lardizabal, and he told her to forget about it. By summer, Thompson felt the plant management was obstructing her from completing inspections. On July 18, Thompson inspected the freezers twice in the morning. In the afternoon, she asked for the key to inspect the freezers again. Parks said this took place at 4:20 p.m., after he left for the day because his brother had been hospitalized. In a noncompliance report, Thompson said she asked three people for the key at 2:20 p.m., but after they told her, “No,” or, “Do it tomorrow,” she tagged the freezers as rejected for not meeting inspection requirements. “We needed frozen product for our deliveries and the trucks need to get on the road by 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.,” Parks wrote. “Though we certainly understand the need to make all such storage areas available for inspection personnel upon request, the day in question was not an ordinary day.” A week later, on July 25, Parks again complained about Thompson performing too many “zero-tolerance” inspections, meaning checks for any fecal material. Parks confronted her, and Thompson allegedly said she was going to find something. “She operates outside the normal scope of her duties, determined to find something wrong on a daily basis,” Parks wrote. “She has told me many times that she has to prove to her father that she can do her job which seems to motivate her in going overboard.” Thompson maintains she only did one “zero-tolerance” inspection that day. Within a month, on August 15, fecal contamination, “olive green in color with a pasty consistency” was found on two halves of a carcass, according to a noncompliance report. The next day, on July 26, as she did regularly, Thompson asked to see Rancho’s mandatory protocols. Parks asked her why she needed to see it so often when others reviewed it “only a couple times a week or less.” Thompson said he refused to let her see the plan. “I was not suggesting that she could not look at it upon request, I was simply seeking clarification based on my long time past experiences with other inspectors,” Parks explained. Thompson returned to the office 30 minutes later with the USDA regulation justifying her responsibility to inspect the plan. She allegedly thrust it on his desk and said, “Do you want to see my badge, too?” Another month passed. On August 26, at 2:30 p.m. Thompson was looking at a carcass on the kill floor and said that most of the culled dairy cows that Rancho killed had cancer and should be condemned. Inspectors can only tag animals for review by the veterinarian, not condemn carcasses themselves, so Thompson complained frequently that Lardizabal was sending unhealthy cows into the food supply. But, according to CNN, Parks said he trusted the harvest foreman, who had been at the plant for decades and was allegedly intimate with Thompson. “The majority of our carcasses end up at Jack-in-the-Box and if they stop taking our products we will be out of business,” Parks wrote. “Lynnette Thompson could put us out of business with her lack of humane handling knowledge and slaughter procedures. To put the future of Rancho in her hands is clearly something we are not comfortable with.” These records were all produced in the months before the recalls. They show an inspector suspicious of the management’s transparency and her own supervisor’s competence. They tell nothing of the “ongoing investigation” food safety inspectors later cited in initiating a recall — perhaps a result of Thompson’s complaints or Parks’ accusations against her — nor of USDA’s decision to include such a massive quantity of meat. But they do show clear warnings about spent dairy cows afflicted with cancer and failures on the part of the Food Safety Inspection Service to address them for months.
In early October, days before Parks wrote his letter, Rancho was spotlighted on a list of repeat violators for two cows whose kidneys tested at 30 and 68 times the federal limit for penicillin, indicating the animals were being given antibiotics for sickness. In January, federal agents arrived at the plant with a warrant and suspended operations. The reason? Cattle that bypassed inspection “were likely affected with epithelioma of the eye (eye cancer),” a USDA letter said. Lardizabal retired close to the date of the recall. Parks, along with 12 of the 14 former Rancho employees, still works at the slaughterhouse, now under the ownership of Marin Sun Farms.
Since the Light first requested documents related to the recall nearly four months ago, USDA has produced only 42 pages and denied an appeal for expedited processing, for which the Light is seeking mediation. Elected officials have repeatedly criticized the official silence. “This is radio silence from the federal agency that did something very significant in my district that is affecting lots and lots of people,” U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) told CNN. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” On Monday, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the House subcommittee responsible for food and drug safety, called for an “independent investigation” and penalties for anyone “who knowingly and willingly put American families at risk.” “I am deeply concerned that the Food Safety Inspection Service failed to prevent this deception from happening,” she said.
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Rancher Fights Order in Blanket 9-Million-Pound Beef Recall https://www.storkxx.com/2014/02/rancher-fights-blanket-orders-in-9-million-pound-beef-recall/ https://www.storkxx.com/2014/02/rancher-fights-blanket-orders-in-9-million-pound-beef-recall/#comments Fri, 21 Feb 2014 17:00:22 +0000 http://www.storkxx.com/?p=85785 Continue Reading]]> Editor’s note: This article written by Christopher Peak originally appeared in the Point Reyes Light. Food Safety Website does not endorse any individual food producer on cleanliness or safety. We also do not consider antibiotics or growth hormones to be a determining factor in the ultimate safety of a food product. Regardless, we feel the article provides a worthwhile perspective. If there is one steak you can trust in a marketplace dominated by factory farming, it comes from Bill Niman’s 800-acre ranch in Bolinas.  The owner of BN Ranch, Mr. Niman has toiled for decades to set the highest standards in the beef industry, verifying the source of all his cattle, spurning antibiotics and growth hormones and overseeing each animal’s slaughter and butchering. But no matter how many precautions Mr. Niman has taken, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has condemned his meat — and the grass-fed beef from almost every ranch in West Marin — as “unsound, unwholesome or otherwise… unfit for human food” in a recall earlier this month of 8.7 million pounds of beef products. The recall treats the highest-quality beef from BN Ranch browned into a sirloin roast at Chez Panisse as a health hazard equal to ground beef from spent dairy cows blended for frozen Hot Pockets Philly Steak & Cheese. After the Nimans contacted political representatives and USDA employees, the agency began a review to determine whether certain producers could be exempted from the recall, Bill’s wife, Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer and rancher, said. The recall of an entire year’s worth of beef processed at the Bay Area’s last major slaughterhouse facility, Rancho Feeding Corporation in Petaluma, was initiated because “diseased and unsound animals” were processed without any — or at least, without a full — inspection, the USDA maintains. The blanket recall enlarged a January recall of just one day’s meat and was followed closely by an investigation into criminal charges against Rancho. Mr. Niman slaughtered 426 cattle last year, all at Rancho Feeding. Since he harvests seasonally, a large stock of that meat remains undistributed in a freezer in Richmond, as a means to extend market availability. If the meat is condemned and Rancho does not reimburse him, he will lose roughly 100,000 pounds of beef, estimated conservatively to be worth $300,000 or $400,000, Mr. Niman said. “This is an example of where people in the middle category are the hardest hit,” Ms. Hahn Niman said. “If you are a really small farmer or rancher, a couple of cattle went through the slaughterhouse a few months back. Maybe a few pieces are left in the freezer. It’s probably manageable. It’s not such a big amount. And if you are a giant corporate entity, you have investments elsewhere. You have insurance. It’s not going to bankrupt you. “We are talking about quite a large amount of meat affected, a huge percentage of the business that we do,” she continued. “Bill’s initial thought was, we just have to close the doors here. He really thought this was going to be the end of BN Ranch.” Mr. Niman arrived at the slaughterhouse at 6 a.m. the first business day after the recall announcement to question a USDA veterinarian about the threat to his customers. He explained BN Ranch’s precautions for slaughter to the veterinarian in detail: Mr. Niman or his employee Don McNab personally loads the cattle onto the trucks bound for Petaluma and supervises the unloading into the pens where they are kept overnight. Mr. McNab arrives early on the day of slaughter to check the cattle, and once slaughter begins, he leads them to the “knock box,” the concrete, high-walled enclosure where the animal is stunned, rendering it unconscious before its neck is cut. Mr. McNab continues to monitor the carcass as it is processed, following an animal until it is placed into the final cooler. His presence also verifies that the meat is fully inspected by the USDA, Mr. Niman said. “With so much time, money and care put into each animal, we would be loath to leave anything to chance during the last few hours of their lives,” the Nimans said. Mr. Niman told the veterinarian that his process ensured there would be no commingling of his meat with a diseased cow, and that even if there somehow was, it would have become instantly clear when the meat was inspected a second time at the USDA-monitored butcher BN Ranch uses. The veterinarian allegedly said, “Yes, of course.” Mr. Niman told the veterinarian his highest priority was ensuring the health of his customers, so he pointedly asked whether he should be concerned about people eating his meat. “If what you say is true and the meat couldn’t be commingled, it probably wouldn’t be a threat,” the veterinarian allegedly said. “I agree with you, but I can’t make that decision.” The Light called the veterinarian’s office to confirm the story, but a secretary directed inquiries to a media spokesperson in Washington, D.C. An email sent directly to the veterinarian Tuesday was not answered. But shortly after the email was sent, Stacy Kish, a USDA spokeswoman, made an unsolicited call to the Light. “Due to the ongoing Office of Inspector General investigation’’—the inquiry into potential criminal wrongdoing—“we cannot comment on any events that are currently going on,” Ms. Kish said. When asked how an uninspected carcass could have received a mark of federal inspection, she said, “Again, I can’t comment on procedural issues.” When told the question was not specific to Rancho Feeding, Ms. Kish told this reporter to “have a good night” and hung up. The USDA has repeatedly declined to elaborate on the basis for alleging “diseased” animals entered the marketplace. The recall is listed as a Class I health hazard, indicating “reasonable probability” of “serious, adverse health consequences or death.” To date, there has not been a single reported illness. For Mr. Niman, the irony of losing a year’s worth of meat due to improper inspection is particularly bitter. He left Niman Ranch, Inc., because he felt his guiding principles were being weakened or outright abandoned for financial reasons. Prime among those principals was his insistence that an employee accompany each animal to the slaughterhouse’s stunning area. “Bill… believed that this was the best way to ensure the animals were never mistreated and felt no anxiety or fear,” Ms. Hahn Niman wrote in her 2009 memoir “Righteous Porkchop.” “The new management team considered this long-standing practice unnecessary and it was soon suspended.” He resumed the practice of personally attending each slaughter or sending an employee in his stead at the new operation. “We’ve been very happy working with Rancho. They do an excellent job,” Mr. Niman said. “You might not know from the outside how clean and well-run things are on the inside.” On one occasion, USDA inspectors at the butcher returned some of his beef they had tested, not because it was diseased, but because it had no trace of bacteria in it. “They thought the test was wrong because it came up so clean,” Mr. Niman continued. “It came out the same the next time. That’s an indication of how careful our system is.” Fears of the plant itself being contaminated also don’t make sense, Ms. Hahn Niman said, because the Rancho was allowed to reopen after a two-week suspension in January. The most recent closure was undertaken voluntarily, the plant’s managers said. “The government should have never condemned the grass-fed animals. That’s the fact. They didn’t even research how they were harvested,” Bob Singleton, the plant’s co-owner said. “They’ve blown it out of perspective, and there’s no reason for it.” For Ms. Hahn Niman the “especially abhorrent” aspect of losing the beef would not be the harm to their finances or her husband’s reputation, but killing all the animals only to have the meat destroyed. “This whole approach [of a blanket recall] sends a bad message to the general public and to the ranchers,” she said. “It tells them it doesn’t matter what care you took. It doesn’t make a difference.” — Photo by Christopher Peak ]]> https://www.storkxx.com/2014/02/rancher-fights-blanket-orders-in-9-million-pound-beef-recall/feed/ 10 Bay Area’s Last Major Slaughterhouse Struggles with Recalls, Closures https://www.storkxx.com/2014/02/bay-areas-last-major-slaughterhouse-struggles-with-recall-closures/ https://www.storkxx.com/2014/02/bay-areas-last-major-slaughterhouse-struggles-with-recall-closures/#comments Fri, 14 Feb 2014 06:04:07 +0000 http://www.storkxx.com/?p=85227 Continue Reading]]> This article was written by Christopher Peak, a Marin Media Institute Research Fellow for the Point Reyes Light. After nearly a century in business, the Bay Area’s last major slaughterhouse facility has once again closed its doors, for the second time in less than a month. Following a massive recall of about 8.7 million pounds of beef and the launch of an investigation into potential criminal charges, Rancho Feeding Corporation in Petaluma, CA, has ceased its operations while they retrieve the meat. The financial burden of reimbursing clients could mean the plant may not reopen, multiple ranchers said, posing a threat to the region’s beef and dairy producers. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a recall of all cattle slaughtered at the plant on a single day in January; on Saturday, a second recall was initiated for a year’s worth of beef, totaling approximately 8.7 million pounds. USDA inspectors maintain that Rancho processed “diseased and unsound” animals that received only a partial inspection or were not examined at all, rendering the meat “adulterated” and “unfit for human food.” The recall will likely have devastating economic effects since many ranches in West Marin seasonally slaughter their grass-fed beef and freeze the meat to release at scheduled intervals. As with most recalls, the meat has already been sold to customers and only a small portion is expected to be returned, but, in Rancho’s case, hundreds of thousands of dollars of meat has never been distributed and will need to be reimbursed out of pocket, clients said. “I have at least 200 customers that received beef last year. I have to review my records and now I have to send out a letter to each of them,” said Mike Gale, a co-owner of Chileno Valley Ranch. “It’s a very time-consuming and frustrating exercise to say the least. There’s no direct link to any meat being a problem for those who have consumed it over the last year.” Gale said he would personally have to drive to pick up any meat across the Bay Area and the state from Fort Bragg to San Diego, a process he called “ridiculous” and “just impossible.” In a letter to producers, Rancho’s manager Scott Parks stated, “Your prompt action will greatly assist Rancho Feeding Corporation in this action.” On the advice of their lawyers, the plant’s management declined to comment on USDA’s allegations, instead issuing a statement noting that the plant is voluntarily recalling the meat “out of an abundance of caution.” “Rancho Feeding Corporation deeply regrets any inconvenience this may cause to our customers,” the statement added. Technically, all recalls are undertaken “voluntarily” since the company is not obliged to remove their own product from the market. However, recalls are often “volunteered” by a firm as an alternative to a product’s detention or seizure by USDA. But, if Rancho had refused, they would have had the option to challenge any administrative action in the courts, said Gary Cox, co-founder and general counsel for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. “If the recall is voluntary, USDA’s actions do not come into question, and there is no judicial review,” he said. “If it were me, and I did not receive satisfactory explanation from USDA, I wouldn’t voluntarily agree to one.” Neither USDA nor the company has received any reports of illnesses associated with the meat. A recall does not imply that all of the meat is unsafe for consumption; it is taken as an added precaution to protect the public. In Rancho’s case, the recall could have been initiated because a step in a rigorous inspection process may not have been completed, or even properly documented. Prior to slaughter, inspectors observe the animals at rest and in motion for signs of illness, and they watch the employees for humane handling and document any violations from clearly abusive treatment to sufficient water levels in the pens. They are present inside the facility to witness the slaughter and to individually check each carcass. Any misstep or deviation from procedure renders the meat adulterated. Stacy Kish, a USDA spokeswoman, said she could not elaborate on the agency’s basis for believing “diseased and unsound” animals were slaughtered. Uninspected meat could have been placed in boxes bearing the USDA seal because they are pre-stamped, she added. The recalled beef products were distributed in California, Florida, Illinois and Texas. They include almost any edible part of the cow from the carcass, which is later butchered into the familiar cuts you find at a grocery store, to the offal, including the head, the small intestine known in Mexican cuisine as tripas, the testicles known as “Mountain Oysters,” various edible glands known as “Sweet Breads,” the liver, tongue, feet and hearts. Veal cuts, bones and trim were also recalled. This recall is the second largest of the past year, surpassed only by an open federal case investigating 10.5 million pounds of frozen meals and snack items suspected of E. coli contamination recalled last April. It is also the largest amount of product recalled in recent years due to incomplete inspections. The closest in size was an order of magnitude smaller: a September recall of 170,000 pounds of ravioli produced in Oregon without any inspection. Beyond USDA’s allegations, little else is clear, leading to suspicion among Rancho’s patrons about the need for a recall of high-quality beef. Most beef ranchers take their cattle to the plant for custom processing, meaning they pay Rancho only to slaughter their cows. These ranchers then sell the product to customers or wholesalers. For retired dairy cows, on the other hand, Rancho often purchases the cattle, slaughters them and sells the meat, often as ground beef. The dairy and beef cows are slaughtered on separate days to prevent the meat from being mixed, clients said. While beef farmers can testify to the quality of their stock, the dairy ranchers who are culling undesirable parts of their herds often bring a lower-quality product. Last fall, testing of two cows from a northwestern Nevada dairy slaughtered at Rancho revealed penicillin levels in the kidneys at 30 and 68 times the federal limits. USDA’s blanket recall fails to recognize the careful oversight of their herds, beef ranchers said, and casts suspicion on an otherwise safe product. “Each week, we hand-pick the best of the best animals to be harvested. Our reputation depends on high quality,” said Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch. “We stand behind our product 110 percent and feel good about feeding it to our own children and family. The North Bay is known for raising some of the best grass-fed beef in the nation.” Some customers have also rallied in support, saying that they trust their local farmers. “We had a Stemple Creek tenderloin for Christmas, and we’ve been eating True Grass ground beef on our Tuesday taco nights at my home all year,” said Gibson Thomas, publisher of the quarterly magazine Edible Marin & Wine Country. “To compare any of this to factory-raised beef is wrong. This is so wildly different from the vast majority of meat we eat in our country, and we need to give our local ranchers credit and support.” Local producers have found the news hard to swallow because the very existence of local alternative meat production is at risk. Without a viable slaughterhouse in the area, producers will need to truck cattle as far away as the north end of the Central Valley, undoing the idea of local agriculture. For them, Rancho’s closure does not simply mark the death of a slaughterhouse, it means the defeat of an ideal. In 2008, Tara Smith and her husband, Craig, were working in the insurance business when their son brought home Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.” The book diagnoses America with an unhealthy eating disorder, drawing attention to its dependence on industrial agriculture epitomized by endless cornfields in Iowa and teeming feedlots in Kansas. In the spring of 2009, they bought 290 acres just south of Petaluma in the hope of finding their own methods of producing and eating ethically. Smith lost six of her cows during the initial recall in January and says the costs from both recalls will be at least $8,000. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want the little farms. They don’t want organic. They don’t want local people growing local food,” she said of USDA. If Rancho shuts down permanently, Smith said she will likely close, too. For one, she can’t afford the costs of trucking her animals far away, and, even if she could, she wouldn’t subject her animals to the torturously long drives. She said Rancho has always been “spit-spot” clean, and she trusts the workers there, whom she’s known for years. “I got into this business to serve up healthy, clean food. I put my animals out onto pasture and complete that life cycle,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t be willing to send an animal down to Fresno to be part of that mess. It would break my heart. If Rancho goes away, so do we.” ]]> https://www.storkxx.com/2014/02/bay-areas-last-major-slaughterhouse-struggles-with-recall-closures/feed/ 4