You can feel the years John "Jack" Virtue has toiled on the land and worked with livestock the minute you shake his hand. His grip is firm, but his palms are callused, and his fingers tan and weathered from decades in the sun.
Soft-spoken and weary after waking up long before sunrise to begin his day, Virtue glances around the front of his yard, where cows gnaw on hay and cats slink under a truck to avoid the afternoon heat, before he begins to talk about his line of business.
At 65 years old, Virtue says his job — which includes waking up at 3:30 a.m. six days a week to transport calves from dairy farms to slaughterhouses — is not really "work" because, as he puts it, "you can't call it work when you love it as much as I do."
Virtue, who has been working in the agricultural industry all his life, is currently in the midst of dealing with a legal settlement after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration filed a permanent injunction against Virtue's operation, Virtue Calves, on June 22.
According to court documents, the FDA claimed that after 17 years of failing to comply with a section of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it was time Virtue made some changes.
The act specifically states that no drug residues can be found in meat purchased or sold for use as human food.
For the next five years, Virtue and his daughter, Shannon Virtue — who helps run Virtue's calve transport business — must keep thorough records of not only which dairy farms they pick up calves from, but also at which slaughterhouses they drop the calves off and whether any of the calves the Virtues transport have drug residue in their system. This will keep the Virtues in line with current FDA regulations. The recordkeeping will also keep potentially contaminated meat from being shipped to other areas not only in California, but to restaurants and stores in other states as far away as Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Illinois, court documents stated.
While there were no reports of people getting sick, court documents stated that Virtue failed to keep adequate records of his business, said Catherine Swann, an assistant U.S. attorney who worked on the case. Keeping thorough records could have helped him make sure the meat he transported was not contaminated, Swann said. Failure to keep updated information on his business also violated the act. To her knowledge, Virtue is the only one in the San Joaquin region who has had legal issues as a result of the quality of meat he transports, Swann said.
Virtue said his records of calves that were transported or medicated were misplaced when men who were repairing his truck in September 2010 removed his papers and probably threw them away.
"Why would I waste $5 on a shot to medicate a calf that I don't even have in my possession for more than a day?" he said. "I have handled more than 400,000 calves during my time in this business, and when you handle that many calves it is hard to keep track. ... But (the FDA) wanted a paper trail, and I couldn't give it to them."
The price to pay as a result of the FDA agreement has been costly to Virtue's business, he said. He has already lost customers who have worked with him for generations because of the decree.
Of the four veal haulers in California who are licensed and bonded to transport veal from the dairy to the slaughter, he said he is the only one in the region who has been given any sort of punishment for having drug residue in the meat.
Jack Hamm, whose dairy farm resides on North Thornton Road, said he has worked with Virtue for more than 30 years, handing over his bull calves to Virtue roughly three times a week so that Virtue can transport them to slaughterhouses.
Hamm said Virtue has always been on the "up and up" with him, and that he was an honest businessman.
Virtue's failure to keep adequate records of where he retrieved calves was not a product of a sloppy business, Hamm said, but rather a product of Virtue not being able to "keep up with modern times."
"It's not like it was 30 years ago, and Jack (Virtue) is a simple guy," Hamm said. "I don't want people to get scared off of meat just because this happened. I know I am not going to stop doing business with him. So he failed to keep up with paperwork — OK. But nowadays, because paperwork is required, if you don't keep up with it, pretty soon things just start to snowball."
Despite the extra time he now has to take to get signatures and fill out forms to present to each dairy farm or slaughterhouse he visits every week, Virtue plans to stay in business indefinitely. Should he retire, he hopes his daughter and then his grandchildren will continue to help Virtue Calves stay in business.
But the likelihood of Virtue taking a break any time soon seems to be fairly small.
Born and raised on a farm in Iowa, Virtue moved to California in 1955 and purchased one cow and two calves, which started his love for the bovine industry.
In 1971 he entered the veal transport business, and by 1995 owned his own business, which he named Virtue Calves. In all his time in the veal business, Virtue said he would never knowingly transport an animal that had been medicated.
"I have to support my family, I have three grandchildren and I need to have surgery on a hernia," he said. "I have between 75 and 100 accounts, and I transport between 400 to 500 animals a week. I can't be shut down. This is my life."
Contact reporter Katie Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.