The U.S. Department of Agriculture alleged for the first time Thursday that a Petaluma slaughterhouse engaged in “circumvention” of federal inspection rules.
The allegation — strongly denied by a partner in the business — came in a statement responding to repeated questions from the media and food safety experts, asking how so many cattle last year failed to receive a full inspection at Rancho Feeding Corporation's facility. The USDA's official answer suggested a distinction between an accidental breach in slaughterhouse protocol and intentional wrongdoing.
In the statement, the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service said its “inspectors were present at Rancho Feeds during normal operations as required by law. The ongoing investigation is associated with the company's intermittent circumvention of inspection requirements.”
The USDA inspector general is conducting a separate investigation into the plant.
While minimal, Thursday's 27-word statement was the first time the USDA has elaborated on the focus of its investigation since Feb. 8, when it announced the recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef sold in the United States and Canada. At that time, the USDA asserted that Rancho “processed diseased animals” without a full inspection.
“Somebody in authority looked at this scenario and said, there's been meat going through the system that shouldn't,” said Bill Marler, a prominent food safety attorney in Seattle who is not directly involved in the matter.
The USDA has not received any reports of illness linked to the meat, an agency spokesman said Wednesday.
The government's allegation was strongly denied by Robert Singleton, one of Rancho's owners.