(CNN) PETALUMA, CALIFORNIA – 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 down 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 email obtained by CNN.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified in front of both chambers of Congress Wednesday - facing questions over the September 11th terror attack in Libya that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had a heated exchange with Clinton during the hearing and is OutFront exclusively with Erin Burnettt. FULL POST
CNN's Erin Burnett talks to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about whether the mission to defeat al Qaeda is accomplished.
"The mission of defeating and deterring al Qaeda I think is well on the way towards achieving the mission with regards to Afghanistan." Panetta added, "We have had remarkable success going after special operations against al Qaeda here and we're continuing to do that."
Programming Note: Erin Burnett reports from Kabul with an exclusive interview with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on the future of Afghanistan and the ongoing fight against al Qaeda.
Our fifth story OutFront: a desperate situation.
Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad fired at least four short-range scud missiles at rebel fighters today, according to U.S. officials.
The White House says this escalation in fighting is just the latest example of the Assad regime's desperate attempts to defeat the opposition in a civil war that has killed almost 40,000 people over twenty months.
The United States is monitoring the situation closely. Earlier today, Erin sat down with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Afghanistan in an exclusive interview and asked him if he is concerned about Syria using chemical weapons.
More than 20,000 American troops are set to leave Afghanistan by 2014. The Afghan war has left more than 2,000 Americans dead and 18,000 wounded. Was the mission accomplished? Was the sacrifice worth it?
CNN's Erin Burnett reports from LIVE from Kabul on the future of Afghanistan on Thursday, December 13th. Burnett sat down with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is in Afghanistan meeting with American commanders on the U.S. troop presence in the country after 2014.
Panetta told reporters Wednesday that President Barack Obama will make a decision on how many troops will remain in Afghanistan after the American combat mission ends in the region.
Burnett talks Secretary Panetta about troop withdrawal in Afghanistan and whether the Afghans can protect themselves and what were the gains from the mission.
Tune to Erin Burnett OutFront at 7pm and 11pm ET on CNN, Thursday, December 13, 2012 for the interview with Secretary Leon Panetta.