SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A slaughterhouse owner who ordered employees to swap out diseased cow heads to push tainted meat on the market was sentenced Wednesday to a year in prison followed by one year in a halfway house.
Had it not been for Jesse "Babe" Amaral Jr.'s poor health, the judge said he would have granted the government's request to impose the maximum 60-month sentence.
"My great concern is about the erosion of trust, betrayal of trust that you and your codefendants caused in circumventing the USDA procedures," U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said before handing down the sentence. "It's one of the most cynical, calculated circumventions I've ever seen or heard about. It's as close to being an unforgiveable offense as I've ever come across."
Amaral, 78, pleaded guilty in 2014 after two slaughterhouse employees admitted they switched diseased cow heads with healthy ones and carved "USDA condemned" out of carcasses behind the backs of inspectors under Amaral's orders.
The now-defunct Rancho Feeding Corp. co-owner confessed that he directed employees to slaughter cows showing signs of epithelioma, or "cancer eye," during USDA inspectors' lunch breaks when all work was supposed to stop.
"Cancer eye" is a disease that can result in condemnation.
Amaral also charged small cattle farmers "handling fees" for cows that failed inspections but then pushed the rejected beef onto the market and pocketed the profits, U.S. Assistant Attorney Hartley West said.
"It was a very disgusting offense, taking advantage of USDA rules that require compliance by these slaughterhouses," West told the judge.
The federal investigation resulted in the Petaluma-based Rancho Feeding voluntarily recalling 8.7 million pounds of beef in 2014.
Amaral's attorney, Michael Dias, said the lack of trust in the system should not fall solely on his client because USDA inspectors also failed to fulfill their duties.
"These carcasses were denatured," Dias said. "They're supposed to monitor the carcasses and make sure they're destroyed in front of their eyes."
Dias added his client was not the only one to benefit nor was he the one who benefited most from the cow-swapping conspiracy.
"In terms of sentencing, I don't think any of that matters," Breyer replied. "What matters is the overall scheme your client participated in and the harm caused by that scheme."
Because Amaral suffered three major heart attacks, underwent triple bypass surgery and was diagnosed with cancer, Breyer agreed to reduce - but not stay - his sentence.
"If you were permitted because of your health to simply escape a period of confinement, I think it would send a terrible message to the public and to people in your profession that if you're sick enough, you can commit a calculated offense which could cause enormous harm to our system and not suffer the consequence of a period of confinement," Breyer said.
The judge initially imposed a $200,000 fine in addition to the prison sentence. However, Dias informed the judge that Amaral had sold off his assets to make restitution to victims, leaving him with a net worth of less than $100,000, compared to his previous worth of $3.74 million.
Before Breyer handed down the sentence, Amaral briefly addressed the court and apologized for his conduct.
"I'm sorry," Amaral said. "I'm sorry for the pain and financial loss I caused the victims. I shouldn't be here, but I am. I knew better. I take responsibility for my actions."
After serving 12 months in prison, Amaral will be placed on supervised release for two years, serving one year in a residential re-entry facility. He must have no contact with co-defendants in the case, and he is not allowed to be employed in a slaughterhouse or any place that involves USDA inspections without prior approval from the probation office, Breyer ruled.
The judge gave Amaral until March 25 to surrender himself to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Following the hearing, Amaral and his attorney declined to comment on their reaction to the sentence.