(Note: In February 1990, the San Francisco Chronicle carried a macabre
two-part story detailing how stray dogs and cats and pound animals are routinely rounded
up by meat renderers and ground up into -- of all things -- pet food. According to Keith
Wood, thc researcher who brought the information to the Chronicle, the paper buried the
story and deleted many of the charges Wood had documented. A report Wood worked on for ABC
television's 20/20 was similarly watered down. In exasperation, Wood brought his story to Earth
Island Journal. A warning to readers: this report is not for the squeamish.)
A RENDERING PLANT SOMEWHERE IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA -- The rendering plant
floor is piled high with "raw product". Thousands of dead dogs and cats; heads
and hooves from cattle, sheep, pigs and horses; whole skunks; rats and raccoons -- all
waiting to be processed. In the 90 degree heat, the piles of dead animals seem to have a
life of their own as millions of maggots swarm over the carcasses.
Two bandanna-masked men begin operating Bobcat mini-dozers, loading the "raw"
into a ten-foot deep stainless steel pit. They are undocumonted workers from Mexico doing
a dirty job. A giant auger-grinder at the bottom of the pit begins to turn. Popping bones
and squeezing flesh are sounds from a nightmare you will never forget.
Rendering is the process of cooking raw animal material to remove the moisture and fat.
The rendering plant works like a giant kitchen. The cooker, or "chef", blends
the raw product in order to maintain a certain ratio between the carcasses of pets,
livestock, poultry waste and supermarket rejects.
Once the mass is cut into small pieces, it is transported to another auger for fine
shredding. It is then cooked at 280 degrees for one hour. The continuous batch cooking
process goes on non-stop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week as meat is melted away from
bones in the hot "soup". During this cooking process, the "soup"
produces a fat of yellow grease or tallow that rises to the top and is skimmed off. The
cooked meat and bone are sent to a hammermill press, which squeezes out the remaining
moisture and pulverizes the product into a gritty powder. Shaker screens sift out excess
hair and large bone chips. Once the batch is finished, all that is left is yellow grease,
meat and bone meal.
A Meaty Menu
As the American Journal of Veterinary Research explains, the recycled meat and
bone meal is used as "a source of protein and other nutrients in the diets of poultry
and swine and in pet foods, with lesser amounts used in the feed of cattle and sheep.
Animal fat is also used in animal feeds as an energy source." Every day, hundreds of
rendering plants across the United States truck millions of tons of this "food
enhancer" to poultry ranches, cattle feed lots, dairy and hog farms, fish feed plants
and pet food manufacturers where it is mixed with other ingredients to feed the billions
of animals that meat-eating humans, in turn, will eat.
Rendering plants have different specialties. The labelling designation of a particular
"run" of product is defined by the predominance of a specific animal. Some
product label names are: meat meal, meat by-products, poultry meal, poultry by-products,
fish meal, fish oil, yellow grease, tallow, beef fat and chicken fat.
Rendering plants perform one of the most valuable functions on Earth: they recycle used
animals. Without rendering, our cities would run the risk of becoming filled with diseased
and rotting carcasses. Fatal viruses and bacteria would spread uncontrolled through the
The Dark Side
Death is the number one commodity in a business where the demand for feed ingredients far
exceeds the supply of raw product. But this elaborate system of food production through
waste management has evolved into a recycling nightmare. Rendering plants are unavoidably
processing toxic waste.
The dead animals (the "raw") are accompanied by a whole menu of unwanted
ingredients. Pesticides enter the rendering process via poisoned livestock, fish oil laced
with bootleg DDT and other organo-phosphates that have accumulated in the bodies of West
Coast mackerel and tuna.
Because animals are frequently shoved into the pit with flea collars still attached,
organo-phosphate-containing insecticides get into the mix as well. The insecticide Dursban
arrives in the form of cattle insecticide patches. Pharmaceuticals leak from antibiotics
in livestock and euthanasia drugs given to pets are also included. Heavy metals accumulate
from a variety of sources -- pet ID tags, surgical pins and needles.
Even plastic winds up going into the pit. Unsold supermarket meats, chicken and fish
arrive in styrofoam trays and shrink wrap. No one has time for the tedious chore of
unwrapping thousands of rejected meat packs. More plastic is added to the pits with the
arrival of cattle ID lags, plastic insecticide patches and the green plastic bags
containing pets from veterinarians.
Skyrocketing labor costs are one of the economic factors forcing the corporate flesh
peddlers to cheat. It is far too costly for plant personnel to cut of flea collars or
unwrap spoiled T-bone steaks. Every week millions of packages of plastic-wrapped meat go
through the rendering process and become one of the unwanted ingredients in animal feed.
The most environmentally conscious state in the nation is California, where spot checks
and testing of animal feed ingredients happen at the wobbly rate of once every (* ....missing
words) The supervising state agency is the Department of Agriculture's Feed and
Fertilizer Division of Compliance. Their main objective is to test for truth in labelling
- does the percentage of protein, phosphorous and calcium match the rendering plant's
claims; do the percentages meet state requirements? However, testing for pesticides and
other toxins in animal feeds is incomplete.
In California, eight field inspectors regulate a rendering industry that feeds the animals
that the state's 30 million people eat. When it comes to rendering plants, however, state
and federal agencies have maintained a hands-off policy, allowing the industry to become
largely self-regulating. An article in the February 1990 issue of Render, the
industry's national magazine, suggests that the self- regulation of certain contamination
problems is not working.
One policing program that is already off to a shaky start is the Salmonella
Education/Reduction Program, formed under the auspices of the Nalional Renderers
Association. The magazine states that "...unless US and Canadian renderers get their
heads out of the ground and demonstrate that they are serious about reducing the incidence
of salmonella contamination in their animal protein meals, they are going to be faced with
... new and overly stringent government regulations."
So far the voluntary self-testing program is not working. According to the magazine,
"..only about 20 percent of the total number of companies producing or blending
animal protein meal have signed up for the program.. " Far fewer have done the actual
The American Journal of Veterinary Research conducted an investigation into the
persistence of sodium phenobarbital in the carcesses of euthanized animals at a typical
rendering plant in 1985 and found "virtually no degradation of the drug occurred
during this conventional rendering process ... the potential of other chemical
contaminants (e.g. heavy metals, pesticides, and environmental toxicants, which may cause
massive herd mortalities) to degrade during conventional rendering needs further
Renderers are the silent partners in our food chain. But worried insiders are beginning to
talk and one word that continues to come up in conversation is "pesticides." The
possibility of petrochemically poisoning our food has become a reality. Government
agencies and the industry itself are allowing toxins to be inadvertently recycled from the
streets and supermarket shelves into the food chain. As we break into a new decade of
increasingly complex pollution problems, we must rethink our place in the environment. No
long hunters, we are becoming the victims of our technologicaly altered food chain.
Keith Wood is an independent television producer based in Los Angeles and San
Copyright 1990, Earth Island Journal