An upscale Marin County meat purveyor is purchasing a troubled San Francisco Bay Area slaughterhouse at the center of a recall of nearly 9 million pounds of beef.
In a transaction that signals rising demand for locally raised, grass-fed beef, Marin Sun Farms expects to soon close a deal for a 2-acre facility that had belonged to the now-defunct Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma, which is under investigation by federal regulators who say it sold "diseased and unsound" animals.
"We have put together an investment group to purchase the land and take over as a new operator," David Evans, founder and chief executive of Marin Sun Farms, said Thursday. "We will not be doing any of the previous practices. We are starting a new operation with a new USDA license and new protocols from scratch."
Evans said the investment was worth several million dollars and that the facility will require some upgrades. He said his company had relied on the Rancho Feeding facility to slaughter some of its animals and couldn't risk losing a facility crucial to the network of specialty livestock ranchers in the region. Without the former Rancho Feeding site, Evans said he would have had to send animals as far as Modesto for slaughter.
"This is vital for the survival of niche meat and the sustainable meat movement," said Evans, who is also applying for organic certification.
Rancho Feeding voluntarily announced the massive recall Feb. 8. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Rancho Feeding sold uninspected beef "unfit for human food" to thousands of retail chains, including Kroger, Food 4 Less and Wal-Mart. On Tuesday, Nestle issued a voluntary recall of some varieties of its Hot Pockets after it discovered a supplier had bought meat from Rancho Feeding.
Rancho Feeding could not be reached for comment.
There are no reported illnesses linked to the company's meat, but the firm is being investigated for potential criminal wrongdoing by the USDA's inspector general.
A spokesman for the USDA said the investigation is ongoing despite the sale of the company. Investigators are looking into reports that Rancho Feeding may have circumvented inspections.
Located in Point Reyes Station, about 40 miles north of San Francisco, Marin Sun Farms is a specialty purveyor of beef, pork, poultry and lamb. The company promotes local and sustainable farming practices increasingly coveted by consumers. But prices aren't cheap. A pair of bone-in rib-eye steaks cost $72.
Evans established the company in 1998, selling grass-fed beef raised on his family's pastureland.
Since then, his enterprise has grown into a reputable gourmet meat company with butcher shops in Oakland and Point Reyes Station, which doubles as a restaurant. He also owns a West Marin restaurant and a major processing facility in San Francisco where butchers carve carcasses into smaller cuts for wholesale buyers.
In addition to raising its own livestock, Marin Sun Farms works with a network of ranches in the surrounding area. The company was one of several higher-end, pasture-fed livestock farms that paid Rancho Feeding to slaughter some of its animals. Evans has tried to purchase the facility in the past, but he said Rancho Feeding's owners declined.
Small slaughterhouses like Rancho Feeding are dwindling nationwide because they're unable to compete with big grain-fed operations that can deliver high volumes of meat year-round.
Grass-fed livestock is generally slaughtered only in the summer because of the availability of natural forage, said Clint Victorine, owner of Eel River Organic Beef in Hydesville, Calif., just south of Eureka.
"In the last five years, you've seen all these niche companies like Marin Sun Farms making a killing and resurrecting the need for smaller processing plants," Victorine said.
Chef Daniel DeLong of Manka's Inverness Lodge north of Point Reyes Station was one of Marin Sun Farms' first customers. He said Evans has galvanized people in the food industry.
"Our whole focus is on using what's in our midst," he said. "It's great that they've purchased Rancho, because it's going to allow the continuation of small ranches here and facilitate the process that has gone on. We need to have a slaughterhouse nearby. It's part of what is keeping the local food community alive."
Times correspondent Summer Brennan contributed to this report.