How did meat from diseased animals get sold?

Cancerous cow diagram
Cancerous cow diagram

PETALUMA, Calif. (CNN) – Federal investigators say a California meat plant processed diseased cows for use in U.S. foods.

It’s the same company that was forced to recall 8.7 million pounds of meat back in March.

CNN has learned what investigators believe happened inside the Rancho Feeding Corporation, the plant behind one of the biggest meat recalls in years. It involves cancerous cows, meat not fit for human consumption, and an illicit romance.

Federal officials familiar with the investigation believe Rancho processed cancerous cows when government inspectors weren’t there.

And after they were slaughtered, hid the warning signs of the cancer: trimming off diseased parts, using a fake stamp of approval, or even replacing the heads of sick cows with healthy ones.

It’s not clear which employees were involved.

Appearing to be from different cows, the nearly worthless meat could then be sold at full price.

But that’s not all: CNN has learned that the government’s own food safety inspector, the person responsible for protecting consumers from bad meat, was having a romantic relationship with a plant foreman.

CNN obtained an email sent to the USDA that details the romance between on-site USDA inspector Lynnette Thompson and a plant foreman.

The email says the foreman admitted to an assistant plant manager he had quote “been seeing Lynette Thompson” and “went to her trailer three different times and they were intimate.” The email included personal texts said to be between Thompson and Cabrera… She texts: “i need a kiss later” he responds “me to” [sic] .. and there is a text where Thompson says “Play dumb please 4 my kids delete everything k.”

Documents show there was an acrimonious relationship between Thompson and plant officials, and she had complained about the processing of cancerous cows. But having a romance with a plant employee is against USDA rules for an inspector. CNN tried to get in touch with Lynnette Thompson, but were told she did not want to speak to CNN.

Rancho has since been sold, and the former owners won’t talk on camera. But the lawyer for one of them did, and Jeffrey Bornstein says the relationship between the foreman and the inspector was not connected to the recall. But he did admit 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.

Bornstein says his client is sorry, but the owner had no intent to hurt the public.

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

Bornstein says his client is cooperating with the federal investigation, but wouldn’t discuss specifics of what went on in the plant. Neither will the federal officials who are conducting the criminal investigation.

That has Congressman Jared Huffman, (D) California wondering if the USDA has something to hide.

“One would speculate at this point that in order for there have been a deception that allow a whole bunch of improperly processed meet to get certified for sale, someone at USDA was deceived. 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,” Rep. Huffman said.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco is investigating.

A law enforcement source tells CNN that charges against Rancho’s owners are forthcoming.

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