The U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspector general has opened an investigation into the Northern California firm behind a massive recall of nearly 9 million pounds of beef products, raising the possibility of criminal wrongdoing by the company.
A spokesman for the the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service confirmed the investigation to The Times on Tuesday.
Rancho Feeding Corp. of Petaluma on Saturday announced a recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef products processed at its plant over the last year and sold in California and three other states. They included whole carcasses, beef tongue, head, tripe and oxtail.
Federal regulators said that the plant "processed diseased and unsound animals" without a full federal inspection. As a result, the agency said, the "products are ... unsound, unwholesome or otherwise are unfit for human food and must be removed from commerce."
The involvement of the USDA's inspector general signals that there may have been criminal wrongdoing, according to food safety attorney Bill Marler in Seattle.
The USDA is "taking it up a notch," Marler said. It's "not very usual" for this to happen, he added.
Though regulators haven't disclosed many details, Marler said the company could face criminal charges if it knowingly shipped "adulterated" meat products without inspection.
There have been no reported illnesses linked to the beef products in question, the company and the USDA said.
A call seeking comment from Rancho Feeding went unanswered Tuesday.
The plant's quality control manager offered few details Monday about how the beef made it to market without a full federal inspection.
The company has voluntarily closed the facility as the recall continues and it compiles a full list of customers to whom it sold the meat.
On Monday, the Food Safety and Inspection Service released the names of 14 stores in California that were customers.
At least five of the meat markets cater primarily to Latino customers. The carnicerias, as they're called in Spanish, are in Santa Rosa, San Rafael and Napa. Other stores appear to be specialty meat stores.
In a statement, Scott Parks, the Rancho Feeding plant's quality control manager, said the plant undertook the recall "out of an abundance of caution" and that the company regrets the inconvenience to its customers.
The company last month recalled nearly 42,000 pounds of beef products because they did not have a full federal inspection.
The beef carcasses and boxes affected by Saturday's recall carry the establishment number "EST. 527" and were produced Jan. 1, 2013, through Jan. 7, 2014. In addition to California, they were sold in Florida, Illinois and Texas.