My name is Adam Parks and I own Victorian Farmstead Meat Company in Sebastopol. The recently announced Rancho Feeding Corp. beef recall has had, and will continue to have, a profound effect on my business and the business of dozens of local ranchers and meat companies. Together we are part of a burgeoning movement towards local, well-raised and grass fed beef (among other meats). I was recently asked in an interview why I would bother taking the time to write this article, and my answer is that this recall unfairly and inappropriately harms those of us that have built small local businesses bringing high quality meat to Bay Area customers. Whether we are talking about a local ranch that sells at a farmers market or a local restaurant that prides itself on noting on the menu where each protein comes from, or even a new butcher shop that tells everyone that comes by that everything in their case is raised within 25 miles, we have all worked hard to support growing consumer interest in where our food comes from and we and our customers deserve better than this. Since there is little information coming from the USDA or the owners of the processing facility in question, I decided to do my own research. I decided that it is time to look at the facts so that the public can make an INFORMED decision about what they put on their dinner table. I have attempted to be very clear about what is fact and what I have surmised based on fact. Here is what I have learned.

There has been much rumor and speculation flying around over the past week about the beef recall, largely due to lack of any information from the USDA regarding any specific problems they uncovered. While I do not have any certain knowledge of why this recall happened, I have taken a look at the facts I do know and believe that they paint a pretty clear picture.  So the headline read “8.7 MILLION POUNDS OF BEEF RECALLED!” Now while that sounds pretty scary in light of past recalls at other facilities which have been due to discovery of harmful or even deadly pathogens, what stands out in this recall is the complete lack of anything scary at all.  No pathogens discovered.  No one reporting illness.  No one finding any positive evidence of anything harmful in any single pound of the 8.7 million.  And why 8.7 million pounds? Well, 8.7 million pounds is 100% of the beef processed at Rancho during the one year period of the recall.  And by the way, to provide some perspective, Harris Ranch, the largest beef producer in California (it’s the place on I-5 you can smell 10 miles before you can see it), produced 150 million pounds of beef in 2010.  So Rancho is pretty small in comparison. Of that 8.7 million pounds, I would guess that better than 95% of it has been consumed. Not a single story or report of so much as a tummy ache as a result of any meat that came out of that plant. So why recall a year’s worth of beef from a small, local processor? And why only beef and not pork, which Rancho also processes in the same facility but on a different day of the week than beef.  Well I went to the USDA archives and reviewed over 60 recalls over the past 5 years and found that of those recalls, not a single one reads like this one. Every other recall gives a specific reason. There is something that smells here, and it’s not bad meat.

Approximately 75% of Rancho’s business is in buying old dairy cows and slaughtering them to be further processed elsewhere for fast food hamburger and the like. These cows are often in poor condition and there is significant pressure to hurry them through the system to be processed before they are too weak or sick to pass the USDA inspection. This is an obvious area that lends itself to potential corruption. If a processor has already paid for a cow that turns out to be too sick to pass inspection, they are out that money. I don’t know that this is what happened, but it is the only place that I can see any reason for abuse of the system. Now what about the other 25% of the Rancho business? That’s where we come in! Local ranches that want to sell meat to the public must have their animals processed (referred to as “custom kills”) under USDA inspection and Rancho provided that. So why wouldn’t there be the same type of corruption with custom kills? It’s pretty simple: the processor has no stake in whether our animals pass inspection. He gets paid to slaughter them but does not take ownership like he does with the cull dairy cows referenced above. It seems like it would then make sense to exempt the custom kill animals from the recall, seeing as how we can prove the kill dates and there is no reason to suspect corruption. So why would the USDA issue this blanket recall that includes all beef processed and deny the request for exemption we local ranchers have made? I don’t know the answer, but I have this picture of a drug dealer (processor) flushing his stash down the toilet as the cops (USDA/OIG) are kicking down the door.

Let’s look at how USDA inspection works. The plant (Rancho) is required to have every animal inspected by USDA personnel each step of the way, from evaluating the live animal through each operation of the processing. So the first thing you might think when reading the USDA statement that alleges (without citing any evidence or proof by the way) “…[Rancho] processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection” is that Rancho processed animals when the inspectors were not there. Why would anyone do that? Well, let’s say you bought a bunch of old dairy cows from out of state and by the time they arrived for slaughter a few of them were pretty clearly not going to pass inspection. You are now out the money you paid for those cows because they must be removed from the food system. Or are you…?

The big question that looms here is: why would the USDA recall a whole year’s worth of beef including the custom kills? The stamp of inspection is an ink stamp that is kept under lock and key and is controlled and accessed by USDA personnel only. So if the beef CARCASSES in question went out with a stamp of inspection then the USDA personnel approved it. However, it is clear that old dairy cows went out without a stamp of inspection. The one thing we know for fact is that all of the custom beef were properly inspected and stamped. How do we know this? Keep reading….

I have come to the conclusion that this recall is a result of a massive failure of the system in place today. It is pretty clear that carcasses went out without the stamp or inspection. But that also means that someone on the other end of the pipeline accepted that beef without a stamp and processed it. Those places that accept carcasses for further processing have USDA inspectors as well. So either there is a lot of meat being processed in the middle of the night or there is a real lack of “give a crap” by the USDA. A good friend responded to an earlier post of mine and reminded me of the “old” market system. Back in the day, you know who had oversight on things like inspections and regulations? Insurance companies…that’s right the big bad insurance companies. The beauty of this antiquated system was that they had the most incentive to ensure best practices and the success of those they regulated. If the insurance companies made sure that their customers did things the right way, the business thrived with no claims and everybody won. I’m sure the reason this system is no longer in place is a combination of the insurance companies overstepping their bounds and the government swooping in to save us. But what is the government’s incentive to ensure our success? I guess that is a question for another time…

How do we know our “custom kill” harvested meat is safe?

To start out with, local ranchers bring only healthy animals in to Rancho. According to a Rancho employee I have spoken to recently, in the 20 years he worked there he couldn’t recall a single “custom kill” beef that was unfit for harvest. There is no chance for corruption because all the “custom” animals pass inspection. We know that the animal we take in is the animal we get back because they are individually tagged and that tag stays with the animal all the way through the process, including further processing (cut and wrap) at a separate facility. There is no chance for our “custom” harvested beef to commingle with the cull dairy cows, as it is not only a totally separate operation, it is even done on a totally separate day. Our custom kill animals are humanely harvested one at a time to maintain this integrity, and at a considerable expense compared to large scale feedlot animals. This is one of many reasons that our local meat is more expensive than the commodity meat that is slaughtered en masse and packaged with no specific ranch taking credit for producing that beef.  (That’s right folks “All Natural” and “Certified Angus” are not ranches, they are made up labels.)

So, in a weird way, this recall scare could really be good for our small, local businesses. By purchasing your meat from us local ranchers and purveyors, you know where your meat is raised, what it is fed, and have a chaperone for that animal all the way through the processing. We represent generations of local ranching families and our businesses depend on our reputation and integrity. If you can’t go visit the farm or ranch your meat comes from, you shouldn’t eat it.

What happens now? Well, for now, we must truck our animals 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours away to be processed. This is a tremendous expense on many levels. Fuel and time costs are just the beginning. It is very stressful for the animals to be trucked that far. Then we need to pay to get the carcasses shipped back to our local butcher facility. Over time will obviously mean prices for the consumer go up.

What’s the solution? Getting the current facility back up and running is the solution. There are already groups looking into making this happen. The challenge will be permitting, local regulations, state regulations, federal regulations and the fact that the land might have  more value for development than for the meat processing business. We as a community need to lean on our locally elected officials to make sure that the normal weight of Sonoma County bureaucracy is set aside. This can be taken as “lean on” as in look to for support or “lean on” as in boot to butt to get the job done. I guess that will be up to our elected officials. Isn’t it curious that in all the reports on the news and in the paper that not a single elected official has taken a stand on this or even spoken publically about it?

I believe that another important part of any solution is make sure that the new processor is custom only, so there can be no hint of impropriety. In speaking with several sources I am confident that it is viable to run that facility without the income from cull cows. Because of all the space in the plant that would be available, the plant could in fact not only slaughter but provide much needed additional cut and wrap and beef aging services.

Now that you have some facts, some educated extrapolations, and some potential solutions, what can you do? Start by voting with your dollars. Make sure you know where your meat is coming from. Get to know your rancher or local meat purveyor. Shop at your local famers’ market or maybe that brand new butcher shop in Sebastopol you keep hearing about. Talk to your elected officials and let them know that this is important to you. Be proactive. Otherwise, your alternatives will be to risk your family’s health with meat of unknown origin or become a vegetarian. You understand that becoming a vegetarian means no more bacon, right?