May 2nd, 2014
08:13 PM ET
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CNN Exclusive by CNN Investigative Correspondent Chris Frates and CNN National Reporter Shannon Travis. 

PETALUMA, CALIFORNIA - Earlier this year, a dusty little slaughterhouse in Northern California was ground zero for one of the biggest meat recalls in years. Rancho Feeding Corp. had called back nearly 9 million pounds of bad meat from thousands of unsuspecting stores across the country.

The story of how millions of pounds of bad meat – products the U.S. Department of Agriculture called “unfit for human food” - made it out into the world and triggered a criminal investigation is one of staggering deception and cancerous cows, federal officials familiar with the investigation tell CNN. And the plant where it all went down was also the setting for an illicit romance, according to documents obtained by CNN.

Federal investigators started surveillance on the California facility after getting a tip from a former Rancho employee. In January, federal marshals raided the Petaluma plant and seized the company's records. Days later, the first recall notice went out, officials said.

Investigators now believe that Rancho was buying diseased dairy cows and processing them when government inspectors weren’t there. After the cows were killed, employees would hide the warning signs of cancer by trimming off diseased parts, using a fake stamp of approval or even replacing the heads of sick cows with ones from healthy animals. It’s unclear which employees were involved, officials said.

When a slaughterhouse recalled nearly 9 million pounds of meat, this rancher got caught in the crossfire

The account provides a fuller picture of what happened inside the plant than has been previously made public. In a letter a day after the first recall, the USDA told Rancho an investigation found that 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 wasn’t the only misconduct going down at the plant. Turns out that one of the government inspectors – someone responsible for protecting consumers from bad meat – was having a romantic relationship with a plant foreman, according to a USDA email obtained by CNN.

In the December e-mail, an assistant Rancho plant manager wrote to a USDA official to let him know about the relationship between inspector Lynnette Thompson and the plant foreman. The manager writes that the foreman admitted to seeing Thompson.

Then, things took a turn for the lascivious.

"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 back side in a tanning salon to his cell phone."

The assistant manager attached texts to the e-mail he said were from Thompson to the foreman.

“I need a kiss later," Thompson wrote.

“Me to [sic],” he responds.

In another text, Thompson seems worried about the relationship being exposed. "Play dumb please 4 my kids delete every thing k (sic)."

Thompson had reason to worry. The USDA’s own ethics manual says its employees should not be assigned to an establishment where "they are engaged in a personal relationship with an establishment employee."

The inspector had an acrimonious relationship with plant officials, according to documents obtained by CNN. She had complained about the processing of cancerous cows. But she didn’t want to talk to CNN, according to a woman who identified herself as Thompson’s daughter.

One of Rancho’s former owners – the plant was sold after the recall – said through his attorney that the relationship between the government inspector and plant foreman was not connected to the recall. But the lawyer, Jeffrey Bornstein, did admit that his client, Jesse Amaral, made mistakes.

“There were opportunities for cows to have gone through the process without proper inspection or otherwise properly being handled," Bornstein said.

The lawyer said Amaral is sorry; he didn’t intend to hurt anyone.

“He takes responsibility for mistakes in judgment that were made. He made mistakes in judgment,” Bornstein said. “He regrets not being better able to recognize, respond and stop some of these alleged bad practices earlier. He’s extremely remorseful.”

There have been no reports that meat from Rancho sickened anyone.

Bornstein wouldn’t discuss specifics of what went on at the plant, noting that Amaral rarely went to the part of the plant where the animals were slaughtered. But he said his client is cooperating with federal authorities, including the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco, which is leading the investigation.

Rancho’s other former co-owner, Robert Singleton, declined to comment.

The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to discuss its probe. But a law enforcement source says the U.S. Attorney has decided on charges against Rancho’s owners.

The lack of public information about the investigation has U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat whose district includes the former Rancho facility, wondering if the USDA has 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,” Huffman said. “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."

The USDA declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

CNN’s David Fitzpatrick contributed.

Watch Erin Burnett OutFront weeknights at 7 p.m. ET

When a slaughterhouse recalled nearly 9 million pounds of meat, this rancher got caught in the crossfire
What is 'adulterated' meat?
Who is looking out for your food safety?
Food poisoning: What you need to know

Consumer resources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Food and Drug Administration's Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts
FDA Food Safety
United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Education

More on food poisoning from CNN Health and all food-borne illness coverage on Eatocracy

soundoff (878 Responses)

    STOP à ces cruautés et violences envers les animaux

    June 27, 2014 at 5:02 am |
  2. Annie Wilson

    I’ve read a few posts here and I can actually relate. I am in love with Marie Callender's cornbread. They are simple to make and super yummy, especially with honey butter. I've been a fan of MC's ever since I was a little girl, and have fond memories of eating it with my family back in San Jose, CA. Check out their website to order your cornbread mix. They also stock a variety of gourmet products I'm sure you will enjoy.

    June 19, 2014 at 10:09 pm |
  3. ladylike56

    What has America's meat processing come too. It's happening a little too often. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, it was very rare to hear of E.Coli in meat.

    May 22, 2014 at 11:37 pm |
    • What?

      That's because the O157:H7 strain that is so infamous now wasn't really identified until the early 80's.

      But this recall wasn't about E. coli.

      May 23, 2014 at 8:34 am |
  4. kkr

    9 million pounds of ground beef comes from how many cows?

    May 22, 2014 at 9:23 pm |
    • Geoff

      Approximately 18,000. Alas.

      June 11, 2014 at 11:55 pm |
  5. Very Disappointed

    Also, besides prison time for the owners and Inspector and foreman....the Meat Processing Plant needs to be shut down. I also hold accountible...the regional inspectors for the state of CA....they are not watching the employees and verifying who does what including all reports and sending in alternate inspectors so the same one does not go to the same processing or farm every time.

    May 22, 2014 at 12:55 pm |
  6. Very Disappointed

    Let's begin with the Owner and Co Owner, they are Libel and should be prosecuted and serve Prison time and Fined...for all things criminal selling tainted and cancerous meat to innocent consumers. Next, the Meat Inspector, fired fined and jailed for not doing their job. Next, the foremen ..arrested, fired, fined and jail time. IT's a felony to knowingly sell bad Meat to market and knowingly alter the condition of the meat and its processing. If anyone has become ill from this as in Consumers...Lawsuits Class Action needs to be formed...Any Law firms can do this./

    May 22, 2014 at 12:52 pm |
  7. Marianne wilson-viera

    This article epitomizes the following: local, community-driven production of food vs. an industrialized nation who has purposely created distance between themselves and the food they eat. This is a first world problem. We do not know what we are ingesting. I think I just became a vegetarian.

    May 11, 2014 at 9:44 pm |
    • sam stone

      Welcome to the club. I've been here for 35 years

      May 13, 2014 at 11:53 am |
    • madd potter

      Stop eating beef and your taste buds will come live. Soon you will not even like the taste or smell of beef. Just learning about all of the chemicals they feed to cattle is enough to make you sick.

      May 24, 2014 at 7:00 pm |
      • sam stone

        Yeah, the smell walking by the meat counter at the local market is pretty gross

        May 27, 2014 at 3:22 pm |
  8. Sheeple

    yeah, all these cows sit in their own feces's all day packed in a herd eating GMO corn feed (WHICH THEY ARE NOT supposed to eat) of COURSE they recall this. Its sickening. Thank you Monsanto for supplying our feed to cows

    May 9, 2014 at 7:04 pm |
    • liz Hayes

      Its really scary. We don't know what we are eating.

      May 10, 2014 at 1:35 am |
  9. sunit jain

    So be vegetarian

    May 7, 2014 at 1:02 pm |
    • What...

      ...and murder poor defenseless plants?

      May 7, 2014 at 1:16 pm |
      • Bgriyson

        Love how people feed tortured animals to their families with disregard for the suffering of animals...ok, how is your diseased meat tasting people????
        Oh – and yea, plants do not have a central nervous system to feel PAIN, dumba**.

        May 8, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
        • Oh yeah?

          Au contraire, mon ami abruti. Pour votre illumination:

          May 9, 2014 at 11:09 am |
      • blakmira

        What's a debate about torture to animals without a comparison to plants? So does that mean that torture to animals is okay? Or that you eat neither animals nor plants, since you're too stupid to know the difference between a sentient being and a living enzyme?
        Let me guess: You're a rancher who makes their dirty living off of torturing and slaughtering animals and this is the best argument you could come up with.

        May 14, 2014 at 11:22 am |

      The public should become vegans because a meat packing company is being criminal in their distribution of spoiled meat. and your solution is don't go there? Isn't that accommodation? Does it address the issue?

      May 7, 2014 at 1:35 pm |
    • Thinking things through

      Why? I can't eat spinach either, right? Frankly, I choose to eat both well-sourced meats AND spinach.

      May 7, 2014 at 5:00 pm |
      • blakmira

        What's a "well-sourced" meat? Is that like one of those "happy farms" where the animals all beg to be slaughtered and die happy? You do realize that the "source" of meat is a living sentient being exactly like your pet dog?
        In denial much?

        May 14, 2014 at 11:26 am |
        • What?

          Somehow I doubt that he/she is.

          I doubt that he/she is much into self-righteousness, either, if you know what I mean.

          May 14, 2014 at 4:51 pm |
        • ron hooper

          What seems missing from this and similar articles is whether eating cancerous cow meat is a human health hazard or simply disgusting .

          May 22, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
    • Really...

      Right...because nobody ever gets sick from e-coli or anything...

      May 9, 2014 at 8:00 am |
  10. Karin Hauenstein

    This is a great article! But, unfortunately, it's a drop in the bucket! Take a look at this article by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Joby Warrick, which details the horrific violations that happen every day on high-speed slaughter lines in the U.S. when the captive-bolt is applied incorrectly to cattle: They Die Piece by Piece,%20They%20Die%20Piece...

    It is not humanly possible to stun cattle correctly above 150-200 cows per hour and these plants all operate 300-400+ per hour and rising with the newly proposed line speeds by the USDA!!!

    This article is 13 years old and resulted in Congressional Hearings but practically NOTHING has changed!!! This happens mostly with hamburger plants which the majority of our beef comes from. If you want to know the cause of the Colorectal and other gut Cancer Epidemic that is currently happening in the U.S. look no further than adrenaline in lower-quality beef!!!

    May 6, 2014 at 4:54 am |
    • What?

      A slaughter rate of 300 head/hr means that an animal would have to be stunned every 12 seconds. No "one" can do that, that much is true. However, these plants don't depend on "one" person to stun every animal. They all have at least two people stunning at all times. That brings the time/animal up to 24 seconds, which is quite doable. Your use of half-truths and misdirection make you quite popular with like-minded people, I'm sure, but don't hold much water when subjected to closer scrutiny.

      I would be very interested to see your sources for adrenaline causing colorectal cancer.

      May 6, 2014 at 9:58 am |
      • Thinking things through

        Agreed in that this is the first time I've ever seen anyone talk about a connection between adrenaline in meats and colorectal cancer. I really need some links to journal articles for support of this theory.

        On the other paw (hoof?) I do buy 95% of my meats from local, small-scale, pasture-using farmers. But it isn't about the adrenaline/colorectal connection mentioned here without sourcing.

        May 7, 2014 at 5:06 pm |
        • What?

          She can't post them, because they're not out there. It's real easy to post "junk" when you don't have to substantiate it. The problem is that all the lemmings take it as the truth.

          May 9, 2014 at 6:19 am |
    • Really...

      Tl : dr

      May 9, 2014 at 7:00 am |
    • blakmira

      What? "adrenaline" is only found in "lower-quality" meat ??? The hormone of adrenaline is released in Every Single Animal in the slaughterhouse at the moment of terror when they realize they're going to be killed, regardless of what "quality" the corpse turns out to be. The only "quality" meat has is that it's a dead animal that died in a terrified state, just as a person that was being murdered would.

      May 14, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
  11. Linda's Blog

    Reblogged this on Linda's Blog.

    May 5, 2014 at 7:42 pm |
  12. Shonah

    It's just a matter of time before cows with mad cow slip through........

    May 5, 2014 at 3:00 pm |
  13. Scott

    How much more information do people need to at least flirt with the idea of a meatless diet. It's bad enough ingesting a butchered animal, but butchered animals with cancerous tumors? Enjoy that cheeseburger folks, and just keep that disconnect in your head about where your food comes from, and how it's processed.

    May 5, 2014 at 1:56 pm |
    • Wow

      Ghandi? Is that you?

      May 5, 2014 at 2:02 pm |
      • No...

        Pretty sure it's Morrisey.

        May 5, 2014 at 2:30 pm |
    • Thinking things through

      Scott, if life were All or Nothing, I wouldn't be eating spinach, either. I choose local, pastured meats, and I watch my veggie sources, too. Good meat, good seafood, good and a multitude of veggies ARE healthy. You have to pay attention to sources.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:47 pm |
      • johnfmayer

        Nope. It's possible to be healthy in SPITE of meat, but it's more difficult, and we certainly don't require it.

        May 9, 2014 at 5:48 am |
      • ron hooper

        All good and fine IF you can afford to do so .

        May 22, 2014 at 12:24 pm |
  14. StevenR

    So tea baggers – corporations are good and government regulation is bad. Really? REALLY?

    May 5, 2014 at 11:11 am |
    • snl

      "Turns out that one of the government inspectors – someone responsible for protecting consumers from bad meat – was having a romantic relationship with a plant foreman,"
      Besides being a shill for the dems, do you see that this happened because of the GOVERNMENT inspector wasn't able to care about all of the people eating this meat, just thought of herself. Maybe, you should try to see that there is a lot of evil, selfcentered people out there, like inspector Lynnette Thompson, only looking out for themselves. Why are you so sold on your assumption that that government is only trying to look out for you. Why, in the world, would you trust any government that much?!!! Has there ever been a time, in the history of the world, that the government was there for the people?

      May 5, 2014 at 6:29 pm |
      • Voice

        Ok, you seem to have stopped reading the article there, and missed the following:
        "The inspector had an acrimonious relationship with plant officials, according to documents obtained by CNN. She had complained about the processing of cancerous cows."

        No, the inspector shouldn't have been dating a plant employee, but the evidence doesn't seem to show that the inspector let the relationship influence job performance. (At least not intentionally.)

        May 7, 2014 at 9:53 pm |
  15. Theresa

    Why name the inspector and not the plant foreman?

    May 5, 2014 at 10:28 am |
  16. Objective observer

    Maybe USDA isn't saying anything publicly because there's a criminal investigation going on, rather than it's worried that it dropped the ball. Remember, it took 4 years for the Department of Justice to indict the owner of Peanut Corporation of America, the guy who sold peanut butter knowing it contained Salmonella, after the recall of the product. One doesn't want to tell the world everything it knows when developing a criminal case. The complicity of USDA, if any, will come out in either a trial of the owners of the plant, or after the criminal investigation is finished.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:57 am |
  17. Vegan Man

    Hey Momo, MEAT EATERS WILL ALL DIE FROM HEART DISEASE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!:)

    May 5, 2014 at 7:54 am |
    • Thinking things through

      Heart disease is more likely related to highly processed foods, whether vegan, vegetarian, omnivorian, carnivorian, or other.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:51 pm |
    • benhoody

      Not true so quit lieing. Millions of people are out there who eat meat and are in their 70's, 80's and 90's. How old are you, I guess you must be as healthy as a horse and 100years old or more if you don't eat meat, right? And you sound so hateful towards those who eat meat, is that what going vegan does to a persons mind?, must be the pesticides I guess.

      May 6, 2014 at 1:12 am |
      • blakmira

        Speaking of being "hateful" towards those who eat meat, how about meateaters with your mindset being "hateful" to those animals that are made into meat? Since when did mere words become worse than a violent brutal slaughter of an animal who suffered greatly and wanted to live?

        May 14, 2014 at 11:43 am |
        • benhoody

          Don't be silly, no one is hateful towards any animal. Like it or not, certain animals were created for food and some were not. There is a humane way to slaughter animals and it should be that way. Apparently that's not being done but there is nothing going to be done about it, meat will always be eaten and there is nothing wrong with that, the way they are treated I hate but what can I do about that, quit eating meat is not going to happen no matter how much vegetarians complain and make hateful remarks to those who eat meat. Meateaters will always eat meat and those who don't won't, so what's the point of arguing about it

          May 14, 2014 at 3:20 pm |
    • Sam Hain

      I picture Vegan Man wearing a douchey cape and mask, like some militant animal rights activist super hero wannabe.

      May 6, 2014 at 9:38 am |
      • blakmira

        Yep. You just described the greatest geniuses of all history - Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Pythagoras, Plato, Sir Isaac Newton, Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka, Mary Shelley, George Bernard Shaw - they were ALL vegetarians and outspoken advocates of animal rights. Add to that list Einstein who admitted he ate meat with a guilty conscience until giving it up entirely in his final years.
        But in your opinion I suppose they were all "militant douches." You must be a genius. LOL

        May 14, 2014 at 11:55 am |
  18. Jim FitzGerald

    "There have been no reports that meat from Rancho sickened anyone." This constitutes the 20th paragraph of this story. In journalism school we called this "burying the lead." At CNN it's called "Who cares about the truth when we can scare the crap out of people." More media mendacity.

    May 5, 2014 at 12:17 am |
  19. maryann

    This time sick time horse meat.....there is NO integrity in our food sources any is all about the $$$ and profits not keeping America safe. Shameful!!!

    May 4, 2014 at 10:41 pm |
  20. Giselle

    Where was this beef sold?

    May 4, 2014 at 8:03 pm |
  21. Amanda

    I could care less, I don't touch the stuff. Enjoy minions.

    May 4, 2014 at 3:57 pm |
    • benhoody

      We will, thank you very much, you don't know what your missing, a nice juicy medium rare bbq'd tenderloin steak, mmm, mmm good.

      May 14, 2014 at 3:25 pm |
      • blakmira

        That's a cute response. You're admitting you like diarrhea that's fed to pigs, the feces and urine the animals excrete when they die that pours all over their bodies, and the colonoscopies you will pay for and endure to find all those cancer-laden polyps stuck in your colon. Brilliant, you are. ENJOY THAT ROADKILL steak!

        May 14, 2014 at 3:59 pm |
        • benhoody

          I'm 70 yrs old and kickin, been eating steak and other great meals all my life and feel good, I see no problem in eating meats God created too eat. I think you non meat eaters are depriving your body and brain from some good animal protein. I'm starting to worry about you guys, and I can't understand the hate you have toward meat eaters.

          May 14, 2014 at 4:45 pm |
  22. Concerned Consumer

    Who received the bad beef? What states and grocery stores?

    May 4, 2014 at 3:20 pm |
    • truth

      TX , CA and one other state

      May 5, 2014 at 4:42 am |
      • Kristin

        Oh there's a lot more states affected than that. Here is an article from March saying that 35 states may have been affected. Inside the article is a hyperlink to a pdf listing specific stores. I know WA, AL, MS, and FL were also affected. I just think that the ones you listed were the most heavily affected.

        May 5, 2014 at 1:58 pm |
  23. Seymour Butts

    It's surprising the meat was recalled at all. Just think of how much profits the sickcare industry would have derived from all those people getting sick.

    May 4, 2014 at 3:01 pm |
  24. wracko

    Oh, surprise, a the USDA might have dropped the ball–a few dollars more and the bad meat would still be reaching the public. It's called the American way: buy what you want including public officials.

    May 4, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
  25. Name*mimibarb

    One big question is. ..where is the beef ..what grocery store has them and in what state?????

    May 4, 2014 at 11:39 am |
    • brenda bibeault

      that's an excellent ? where did it go and to what stores.

      May 4, 2014 at 12:58 pm |
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