Rep. Jared Huffman, whose North Coast district includes a slaughterhouse at the center of a massive beef recall, says federal prosecutors are investigating the facility over a possible attempt to deceive federal inspectors.
Huffman, D-San Rafael, told KQED News that he and Rep. Mike Thompson, whose district covers much of Sonoma County, had spoken to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Monday morning about Rancho Feeding Corp. Huffman said Vilsack informed them that the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco is investigating "a deliberate act of deception" by the plant's owner.
Earlier this month, the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service ordered the company to recall 8.7 million pounds of meat it had handled since January 2013. The safety agency said the company had processed diseased and unsound animals without full inspections.
Consumer groups and union leaders last week said the problems at the Petaluma facility may have been the result of fewer USDA meat inspectors. But Huffman said Vilsack told him the number of inspectors was not an issue.
"What Secretary Vilsack emphasized was the seriousness of the investigation," Huffman said. "He was emphatic that this was a situation involving repeated acts of deception by the owner of Rancho and not a breakdown in the inspection process."
Calls to the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco and to Rancho about the reported investigation have so far gone unanswered.
The massive recall has prompted Rancho Feeding to shut down, a move that in turn has created a crisis for North Bay ranchers who have no other local facility to process beef they're sending to slaughter. And that, in turn, prompted Marin Sun Farms, a well-regarded producer and seller of locally raised meat, to make a bid to buy Rancho.
Marin Sun founder and CEO David Evans told the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday that he felt compelled to take over the Petaluma facilities out of concern that the slaughterhouse - the only one in the Bay Area - would close and leave local meat producers without a key supplier.
'There are a number of us who produce high-quality meats for the Bay Area marketplace who have used that facility," Evans said. "All of these niche meat businesses are in existence because we have that slaughterhouse. There's great pressure to have that facility in place."
Huffman said Monday that he and Thompson asked Vilsack "some questions about the path forward, because we have a situation now where all of the meat producers, or many of them at least in my district, are paralyzed by the uncertainty around this slaughterhouse."
Huffman said Vilsack had promised to try to work with BN Ranch, a noted Bay Area producer of sustainable, humanely raised meat, to try to save 100,000 pounds of frozen beef and other products processed at Rancho.
The company has been ordered to destroy the meat, but could get a reprieve if operator Bill Niman can produce documentation that his company's products were not commingled with tainted meat at the plant.
This post includes reporting from Ted Goldberg of KQED News.