This is the third story in a series of stories by Harvest Public Media on food waste called Tossed Out: Food Waste in America.
The long line of semi-trucks waiting to get in the gates of the Farmland Foods plant could simply wait around for a few hours to head back, fresh products on board.
The trucks are loaded with hogs from several confinement operations near this factory in Milan, a small town in northeast Missouri. Within just 19 hours, those pigs will be slaughtered, butchered and boxed into cuts that consumers see in the grocery store and in restaurants.
But that effort will use only about half of the animal.
The other half of the pig will be put to many more uses than just meat. The animal’s organs, leftover meat, bones – even its blood – will be rendered here, sold and shipped out to other manufacturing companies which will produce dozens of other products, everything from livestock feed to fertilizer, pet food to pharmaceuticals, lard and lubricants.
“We sell everything but the squeal,” said Todd Scherbing, senior director of rendering for Smithfield Foods, which owns the Farmland plant.
Rendering is a $10 billion business that allows meat manufacturers to remain one of the more efficient of processors in terms of food waste. Some 56 billion pounds of raw material is processed annually in the U.S. and Canada, according to the National Rendering Association, saving what the industry says could fill all landfills within four years.
In fact, by the time harvested food lands in this step of the chain, processing losses are often less than say, the waste created during the production phase, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Meat production fares better in the manufacturing stage (a loss of 4 percent) than grain products (10 percent).
While the industry likes to tout itself as green, claiming to be the world’s oldest recycling system, the efficient use of the many foodstuffs is also profitable. Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, is a $14 billion company, with $1 billion coming from rendering.
“Once you get to the processing stage, the manufacturers often own the product at that point. It’s certainly in their interest to use every little bit of it that they can,” said Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who wrote an issue paper on food waste.
Just 1 percent of fruits and vegetables are wasted in the processing phase, according to the U.N. study, often because a manufacturing method can save the company money.
Gunders pointed to a redesign in processing at Heinz, the global food company based in Pennsylvania, which changed a sauce-packing process “to directly fill machines from intermediate holding tanks instead of using lining bags to hold sauce.” That saved 40 metric tons of sauce and plastic waste annually, she said.
At the Farmland plant, there are two sections of the factory. On the “kill side,” or slaughterhouse, the animal is cut up in to edible parts, for instance, a pork loin. Then there’s the rendering side, where the pig is broken down into fats and proteins, some edibles like lard, but most non-edibles that end up in dozens of other products.
“Our capacity is 10,500 hogs a day and we’ll kill that in ten hours. We’ll cut that in a little over nine (hours),” said Tim Messman, the plant manager.
Unlike other factories, which put things together for a product, a meatpacking plant takes an animal apart.
“We call it the disassembly process, so we actually take the hog and start breaking it down into smaller components,” Scherbing said.
The amount of raw materials produced by meat processing is staggering. Ten billion chickens and turkeys are slaughtered in the U.S. every year, according to the National Rendering Association, along with 147.2 million head of cattle, calves, hogs and sheep. About 4.5 percent of rendered product comes from animals that die on the farm from injury or old age.
Renderers collect 4.4 billion pounds of used cooking oil, often made into bio-fuels, according to the association. Grocery stores generate 1.92 billion pounds of scraps, fat, bone, expired meat and used cooking oil annually, which is also picked up by renderers.
The process has been much the same since the 1920s, when the current system using a “super-cooker” was invented, said Jessica Meisinger, director of education, science and communication at the National Renderers Association. But the process goes back even further than that.
“Rendering has been around for a very long time, back to when the Native Americans realized that if you poured blood on your corn crops they grew better because it’s a good fertilizer,” Meisinger said.
For centuries, tallow – or beef fat – was made into candles and soap, among other things. Tallow has been replaced with wax for candles, because it burns better, but tallow can still be found in many high-end soaps, she said.
Pet food, livestock feed and biofuels take a third each of all the rendered product in the U.S. and the remaining 10 percent goes to other things, like cosmetics and crayons, Meisinger said.
A tour of the Farmland plant means donning a hard hat, a frock, or long white coat, waterproof boots and a hairnet. At the beginning of the process, the hogs, lined up in winding concrete stalls to keep them docile, are ultimately stunned by ingesting carbon dioxide and are hung up from a back leg on large hooks, moving along one-by-one on a line.
A worker jabs the animal at the throat with a knife and the blood pours out into a trough. That’s the first part that will be rendered, made into blood meal for livestock feed and blood plasma that will be used as a young livestock starter formula.
The line of hooks snakes along the ceiling -- hog heads, livers and other body parts move from one point to another. Jawbones are stacked up like small white traffic cones. At one stop on the kill side, there’s a tray, covered in frost and holding tiny red beads. A worker with a knife has just harvested the pigs’ pituitary glands.
“Pituitary glands are actually, pound-for-pound, the most valuable product we make,” Scherbing said. “It takes a lot of pituitary glands to make a pound, used in the making of insulin.”
Common medicines like insulin and the blood thinner heparin are produced from hog by-products, as is amoxicillin, ampicillin and penicillin, he said.
Organs are packed intact or slurried together and often shipped frozen, typically for pet food, Scherbing said.
“We save ears, we save tongues, tongue root, lips, cheek meat, temple meat, and they take the lean off the back of the head,” Messman said. “We save hearts. We can save liver, either edible or pet food.”
Entering the rendering side of the plant is a physical blow: it’s hot and loud and the smell, which is decomposition, made this reporter gag several times. Raw material is delivered here from the slaughterhouse side by underground augers.
“All the by-products from our kill and our cut process make it over here into our raw material bin,” Messman said. “Raw material is going to be skin, cutting fat, bone, skulls, entrails, all of that.”
The raw material is crushed – breaking all the bones and making the pieces into small chunks. It’s then sent to the super-cooker – a huge barrel-shaped machine that is essentially a giant deep fat fryer set at 270 degrees. That creates sterile bone and meat meals, both wet and dry, which are made mostly into livestock feed and pet food.
“The process really can be broken down into three simple components,” Scherbring said. “We bring the products over to the plant, then we size-reduce it down so we have smaller particles for treating. We cook the product, then we dry the product.”
A smaller machine near the super-cooker is called a hair hydrolyzer.
“We actually even collect the hair off the hogs. We take that, we cook that, we dry that down and then put that into our process,” Scherbing said. “So even the hair is recycled.”
Reusing so much byproduct is carbon positive, meaning it takes more carbon out of the environment than puts into it, Meisinger said.
“Rendering animal tissue has the same effect on greenhouse gas emissions as removing over 12 million cars from the road every year,” she said.
But production of so much meat also has an effect on the environment.
Consumers are often unaware that different kinds of foods have much different carbon footprints, Gunders said. Although more fruits and vegetables are wasted, percentage-wise, the environmental impacts of meat are greater, because it includes growing crops to feed livestock, she said.
“If I throw out a hamburger, that’s the equivalent of taking a 90-minute shower in terms of the water that is used to produce that hamburger,” Gunders said. “Whereas, if I throw out an apple, that’s a seven-minute shower.”
Back at the Farmland plant, three of the rendered products – blood meal, meat and bone meal and what’s called “choice white grease” – primarily go into the feeding of livestock, Scherbing said. It’s often used by Murphy-Brown, the Smithfield subsidiary that operates hog confinements and uses contract farmers, he said.
“A fair share of it goes right back into our own farms,” Scherbing said. “Being a vertically-integrated company…a fair amount of our product goes right back in to our livestock growth.”
Note: A previous version of this story misidentified the Natural Resources Defense Council. It also reported that the hogs were "stunned by an electric bolt." In fact, they are lowered into a pit of carbon dioxide and knocked unconscious.
More from this series: Tossed Out: Food Waste in America