The food world darling Belcampo Meat Co. unraveled quickly last year when it came to light that the sustainable farm-to-table company was anything but, passing off other companies’ meats as its own. That led the California-based butchers to largely shutter in October 2021. But the company’s problems extend far beyond mislabeling.
The US Department of Agriculture is currently investigating Belcampo, according to a new report from the San Francisco Chronicle. Documents obtained by the newspaper detail a processing plant rife with concerning sanitation issues, from mold growing on pallets to meat products giving off a “foul smell.”
While the USDA would not confirm or deny the investigation, a letter declining to release thousands of documents cited an open investigation, and two former plant managers confirmed the same. Belcampo and its former CEO and co-founder Anya Fernald did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Chronicle. According to inspection reports, the plant quickly addressed many violations throughout 2020 and 2021, though.
It’s unclear when Belcampo’s problems truly started, but the documents that the San Francisco Chronicle saw were first dated to early 2020. Inspectors flagged issues ranging from the more mundane—such as full trash cans not being emptied in a timely manner—to the truly gross, like bathrooms strewn with ant-covered meat. In one particularly insidious infraction, a box covered in blood was discovered to be leaking, with “discolored” meat inside. And meat was found to be mislabeled more than a year before that scandal came to light in June 2021.
These sorts of USDA noncompliance reports aren’t uncommon, Caleb Sehnert, the head of UC Davis’s Meat Laboratory, told the Chronicle. But having issues flagged multiple times a day or every day, like Belcampo did, could be indicative of more systemic problems. “Most of those things are stuff that could happen to any meat processing plant once or twice a year,” Sehnert said. “But to have something like that happen every day is unacceptable.”
Sehnert added that the problems could have been due to employees feeling the pressure of a too-ambitious project, stressing them out and causing them to work too quickly. David Zarling, who ran the Belcampo plant from July 2019 to October 2020, also told the paper that the issues could have resulted from a lack of training.
“When I showed up, the plant’s operations were woefully under-documented and inadequate,” Zarling said. “Basically every portion of the plant needed to be fixed. Inevitably, we weren’t able to move all balls down the field at the same time.”
Zarling eventually left the company because of stress-related health issues. His replacement ran the plant until it was sold to Nexus Beef in May. Meanwhile, Belcampo’s farm is now a glamping site where you can stay in cowhide-decorated tents for $125 a night.