The next chapter in the saga of a troubled Petaluma slaughterhouse opens today as it begins operations under the aegis of Marin Sun Farms, a San Francisco-based boutique meat producer.
Marin Sun is taking over the facility formerly run by Rancho Feeding Corp., which went out of business in February after federal food-safety inspectors ordered it to recall 8.7 million pounds of beef products. The Department of Agriculture said the plant processed diseased and unsound animals without inspectors' approval.
Marin Sun CEO David Evans said during a press conference last week at the Petaluma plant that its operations have been completely overhauled. "Everything has been rewritten, reinspected, reinvested in, with a completely new mission and outlook on how to do business and how to bring product to the Bay Area consumers," Evans said.
But the change in ownership doesn't end the months of upheaval that have afflicted many Bay Area ranchers. They've had to send animals to slaughter to facilities in the Central Valley or on the North Coast. And one respected rancher is facing continuing losses linked to the recall.
At a Bay Area refrigeration facility recently, Bill Niman opened cardboard boxes stacked shoulder-high. He held up premium cuts of meat individually wrapped with his BN Ranch label.
“Beautiful little chuck-eye pot roast that could feed 10 people a beautiful meal,” Niman said. “It’s going to the dump.”
The recall has left Niman with 100,000 pounds of grass-fed beef that he can't sell. Niman was left with so much meat because he decided to put aside nearly a quarter of his 2013 inventory to sell at peak times later. That decision could now cost him up to $400,000. He said the saddest part is that his animals will have died for nothing.
“We have a huge amount of emotional attachment in these animals and to think that you could take them and go through the slaughtering process and then not be able to use that to feed people,” Niman said. “It’s almost too much to bear.”
Niman tried for weeks to get the recall lifted on his beef. He gave the Department of Agriculture documents showing all his meat processed at Rancho Feeding Corp. received the proper inspections. Niman said his company is unique in that he or a member of his staff observes the entire slaughter and butcher process. Still, late last month, federal officials told Niman he could not sell his meat. Niman said that means BN Ranch could fold.
“Our total sales in 2013 were $1.7 million, so if you deduct $300,000 or $400,000 from that in a very slim-margin business, the impact of that is huge.”
Niman said most people don't know that he cut ties with his namesake business Niman Ranch seven years ago, after an entity with a controlling stake in the company changed parts of the cattle-raising process in ways that he said went against his values.
“I've actually gotten some hate mail from people who think, ‘You guys make so much money, you made so much money at Niman Ranch,’ ” said Niman. “We walked away from that with nothing.”
Niman is considering a lawsuit against the former owners of the Petaluma slaughterhouse in hopes of recouping some of his losses. He said a lot will depend on what happens with the federal criminal investigation into practices at the plant.