In my constant quest to uncover the seamy side of meat production, I was admittedly delighted, but then quite horrified, when I read a recent New York Times account of our country's rendering industry.
Rendering? The term refers to a process the meat industry and others rely upon to take care of an incessant and nagging predicament they face: by-product dead animals and parts of dead animals.
Think about it. Millions of chickens and other livestock victims of today's agribusiness die tortured deaths on factory farms every year. Half of every butchered cow and a third of every butchered pig are not consumed as food by humans. On a daily basis, some 250 rendering plants deal with a hundred million pounds of feet, tails, feathers, bones, spinal cords, hooves, milk sacs, grease, intestines, stomachs and eyeballs.
Both business and government add to this volume. Farms contribute the most, but animal shelters, with their daily kill of euthanized cats and dogs, also provide a hefty share. Highway patrolmen, with the days roadkill, partake of the service, too. They all benefit as their headaches are carted away, first to be minced, then to be poured into vessels and steam cooked.
On the "fringes of polite society," this "witch's brew," as the Times put it, consists of a slurry of animal fat and protein, which eventually makes its way into every conceivable commercial product. Certainly industrial lubricants. But also, on the less savory side, such products as lipstick, pharmaceuticals and gummy candies. Ultimately, the ubiquity of these rendered ingredients makes it tough even for careful vegans to avoid them completely.
Steam cooking reduces the animal stew so it can be broken down and separated. Fats and oils rise to the top; heavier materials--hooves, muscle, bones--settle to the bottom. The various levels of fat are siphoned off, filtered and processed more by centrifuge. The heavier material is dried, squeezed of fat and then dried again, with the resultant powder serving to make cannibals out of our nation's livestock. You might call it recycling; and at least one trade group that represents renderer's, the Animal Protein Producers' Industry, is proud to use this term.
Most of us know at least bits and pieces of the mad-cow saga still dragging on in England. There is strong evidence that the British practice of feeding rendered scrapie-infected sheep to cows was the cause. With such recycling so commonplace in the United States, widespread concern is mounting here.
Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban on using certain animal tissue in animal feed. Named by the proposal were animals that chew their cud (cows, sheep, goats, deer and elk). At the end of March, a coalition of consumer groups, veterinarians and federal meat inspectors proposed that pigs be added to the list of animals banned as animal feed.
These proposals sound like good news for vegetarians. As noted, rendering eliminates what would otherwise be a huge headache for meat producers as well as for others; and a headache for industry is another name for higher production costs. The rendering process is an incredible cost-saver, especially when the rendered material is made into livestock feed. Take away the convenience of rendering and the industry will have to pass the extra costs on to consumers. The natural outcome? A marginal number of people are likely to eat just that much less animal food.
Could this be the beginning of a trend in which the meat-industrial complex falls from under its own weight? We can only hope.