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article imageOp-Ed: Deception, illicit romance behind California beef recall

By Karen Graham     May 4, 2014 in Crime
On February 14, 2014, the USDA announced that the Rancho Feeding Corp., a Petaluma, Calif. company was recalling almost 9.0 million pounds of beef products. It was discovered the facility had processed unwholesome meat without the benefit of inspection.
The recall eventually grew from fewer than about 100 establishments to more than 1,000 in just a few days after the recall was announced. By the time the investigation was in full swing, 29 states and five Canadian provinces were affected.
It has now been almost three months since that first USDA announcement, and after a two-pronged investigation by the department's Office of Inspector General and its Food Safety and Inspection Service, a story worthy of a screenwriters imagination has surfaced, one involving the processing of cancerous dairy cows, criminal deception, and an illicit romance.
Rancho Feeding Corporation was a small slaughterhouse in the Northern California city of Petaluma. Just 40 miles north of San Francisco, Petaluma is known for its historic architecture, much of it having survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The company exchanged hands soon after the recall, and the former owners are now facing criminal charges.
Based on an article by CNN, federal authorities began a surveillance of the Rancho plant in January after receiving a tip from a former employee. A few days later, the plant was raided and company records were seized. Shortly thereafter, the first recall went out. The recall was eventually expanded, and around 9.0 million pounds of beef products processed in 2013 were involved.
At first, it was thought that only a few markets were impacted by the recall, but by the time the investigation was over, thousands of food chains including Kroger, Food 4 Less, and Walmart were involved. Nestle Corporation, the maker of Philly Steak and Cheese flavored Hot Pockets recalled the product after the company learned it had bought beef from Rancho Feeding Corp.
But this was just the tip of the iceberg, as they say. Further investigation led to more than just allowing meat to leave the facility that was "unwholesome" and without the benefit of federal inspection. Inspectors found that the plant was knowingly buying diseased dairy cows and processing them when government inspectors weren’t there.
After the cows were killed, it is alleged that employees would hide the warning signs of cancer by trimming off diseased parts, even going so far as to exchange the diseased heads with the heads of healthy cows. It is also believed that a fake USDA approval stamp was used as part of the cover-up. It is unclear as to how many employees were involved in this.
A fuller picture was revealed by CNN when the contents of a letter sent to the plant manager by the USDA a day after the first recall was made public. The USDA told Rancho the investigation found the facility “shipped adulterated and misbranded product” and hadn’t inspected cattle that “were likely affected with epithelioma of the eye (eye cancer).”
But that is not all the story. The "juicy" part was made known in a USDA email to CNN. It seems that one of the government inspectors, the person responsible for protecting consumers from buying bad meat, was having an illicit romance with the plant foreman.
The inspector, Lynette Thompson, knew better than to become intimate with an employee at the plant because the USDA ethics manual states that employees should not be assigned to a plant where they have a relationship with any employee. Knowledge of the relationship was part of the original email sent to the USDA back in December by the former assistant plant manager.
Included in the email were attached texts between Thompson and the plant foreman. “He said he went to her trailer three different times and they were intimate,” according to the e-mail. “She also sent him a picture of her naked backside in a tanning salon to his cell phone.”
“I need a kiss later,” Thompson wrote.
“Me to [sic],” he responded.
In another email attachment, Thompson seemed to be worried about someone finding out about the affair. She wrote:
“Play dumb please 4 my kids delete everything k [sic].”
While the relationship between the inspector and the plant foreman is not directly related to the recall, parties declined to speak to news media, citing the ongoing investigation. The U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment, as expected, but sources told CNN that the U.S. Attorney has decided on charges against Rancho’s owners.
California Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat whose district includes the former Rancho facility is publicly wondering if the USDA may have something to hide. “One would speculate at this point that in order for there [to] have been a deception that allowed a whole bunch of improperly processed meat to get certified for sale, someone at USDA was deceived. Something must have broken down in their process too. So, in the absence of information, I am left to believe that maybe they’re a little concerned that they dropped the ball, too.”
Deception, cover-ups and all the rest of this sordid story would lead anyone to believe someone dropped the ball. But this is only one story. It leads us to wonder how many other balls have been dropped around the country. The news media reports stories about food recalls almost every single day. Recalls show that someone is doing something right, but how many millions of pounds of tainted or contaminated food products get past inspectors?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about rancho feeding corp, federal investigation, Beef recall, USDA, Deception
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