Indictments in Petaluma case of contaminated beef

by Henry K. Lee, San Francisco Chronicle

Photo credit:  Gajda-13

Photo credit: Gajda-13

A federal grand jury indicted several officials at a shuttered Petaluma slaughterhouse linked to a massive recall on charges that they sold dairy cows with eye cancer after chopping off their heads so inspectors couldn’t detect the disease, according to court documents unsealed Monday.

The three defendants have ties to Rancho Feeding Corp., which stopped operating in February after a recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef – a year’s worth of meat that had been processed from diseased and unhealthy animals without a full federal inspection, authorities said.

The indictment, issued Thursday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, names Jesse Amaral Jr., the company’s president and general manager; Felix Cabrera, the plant foreman who oversaw the “kill floor” where livestock was slaughtered; and Eugene Corda, who was responsible for receiving cattle and moving them for inspection and slaughter.

From 2012 to this year, Amaral directed employees to process cattle that had already been condemned by a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian, the indictment said. Cabrera then allegedly told “kill floor” employees to carve the “USDA Condemned” out of the carcasses.

Amaral also directed Cabrera and Corda to circumvent inspection procedures for certain cows with signs of epithelioma, also known as “cancer eye,” authorities said.

Corda swapped in cows that had signs of the cancer, but had not been inspected, for cattle that had already passed inspection and were awaiting slaughter, the indictment said. Cabrera, authorities said, then “placed heads from apparently healthy cows” next to the cow carcasses linked to the cancer.

This happened while federal meat inspectors were on their lunch break – when plants operations were supposed to stop, investigators said.

Between 2013 and 2014, the plant processed and distributed meat from 101 condemned cattle and 79 cows that had been infected with eye cancer, the indictment said.

All three men were charged with conspiracy to distribute adulterated, misbranded and uninspected meat. Amaral was also charged with mail fraud for allegedly creating fraudulent invoices by telling farmers that their cattle had died or were condemned when, in fact, they had been sold for human consumption.

In a related case Monday, prosecutors charged Robert Singleton, who co-owned the plant with Amaral, with aiding and abetting in the distribution of the meat in question. But in an important distinction, Singleton was named in a court document known as an information, which in federal court typically signifies that a defendant intends to plead guilty.

A lawyer for Amaral was not available for comment Monday. Another attorney representing Amaral has previously said that his client cooperated with the government, had tried to run a “first-rate local slaughterhouse,” and was “very sorry for any impact that this situation has caused to his customers and to the meat-buying public.”

The slaughterhouse was taken over by Marin Sun Farms.

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