PETALUMA, CA - 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.
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 on 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 e-mail 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 responded.
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.