Final Defendant Pleads Guilty in Petaluma Slaughterhouse Case

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Cattle on Hastings Island, north of Rio Vista in Solano County.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Update, 3:30 p.m. Wednesday: Closed Petaluma slaughterhouse co-owner Jesse “Babe” Amaral pleaded guilty Wednesday morning to conspiring to distribute adulterated, misbranded or uninspected meat.

Amaral owned Rancho Feeding Corp. with Robert Singleton. The company was at the center of a widespread recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef last year.

Federal prosecutors said the charge carries a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison, three years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine and a $100 special assessment. Amaral is scheduled to be sentenced July 1.

Co-defendants Eugene Corda and Felix Cabrera pleaded guilty late last year — Cabrera for the same charge as Amaral, Corda for distribution of adulterated meat, a different charge than that of conspiracy.

Singleton pleaded guilty to straight distribution of adulterated meat, without conspiracy, in August 2014.

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Distribution of adulterated, misbranded or uninspected meat carries a maximum statutory sentence of three years in prison, one year of supervised release, a $10,000 fine and a $100 special assessment, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for California’s Northern District.

Sentencing for Singleton, Cabrera and Corda has not yet been scheduled.

Original post, Tuesday, Feb. 17: Federal prosecutors are expecting a guilty plea Wednesday from the co-owner of a Petaluma slaughterhouse accused of processing meat that led to a major recall.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco confirmed that Rancho Feeding Corp.'s former co-owner, Jesse Amaral, is expected to change his plea from not guilty but would not specify the scope of a plea deal.

Amaral was the last of four defendants to plead guilty in the case. He was facing a range of charges connected to allegations he directed the company to process and distribute meat he knew was unfit for slaughter.

Last August, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Amaral and two Rancho workers with 11 felony counts, including distribution of adulterated and misbranded meat, mail fraud and conspiracy.

Rancho’s co-owner, Robert Singleton, was indicted on a single count of distributing adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat. Singleton cooperated with prosecutors and was the first of the defendants to plead guilty.

The indictment alleged that Rancho's owners directed employees to circumvent inspection procedures for cows that exhibited signs of epithelioma -- also known as "cancer eye" -- including lumps and other abnormalities around the eyes, from mid-2012 until January 2014.

According to the indictment, a foreperson swapped uninspected cows for cattle that had already passed inspection and were awaiting slaughter. Then employees slaughtered the cancerous cattle and deposited their heads in a gut bin, the indictment says. Employees then allegedly placed the heads from apparently healthy cattle next to the carcasses of the diseased cattle during the inspectors’ lunch breaks.

Employees are also said to have carved out “USDA Condemned” stamps from other carcasses. Between January 2013 and 2014, Rancho allegedly processed and distributed meat from about 101 condemned cattle and 79 cancerous cattle. Rancho paid Cabrera $50 for each condemned carcass that was distributed, the indictment alleges.

Part of the inventory condemned as part of the Rancho investigation was grass-fed meat produced by North Bay rancher Bill Niman. Federal inspectors forced Niman to destroy about 30 tons of meat processed at Rancho's Petaluma facility, even though it had been slaughtered separately from other products.