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 processors in terms of food waste. In fact, meat production fares better in the manufacturing stage (a loss of 4 percent) than do grain products (10 percent), according to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But just 1 percent of fruits and vegetables are wasted in the processing phase, according to the study, often because a manufacturing method can save the company money.
The meat industry likes to tout itself as green, calling rendering the world’s oldest recycling system. The National Rendering Association says it processes about 56 billion pounds of raw material annually in the U.S. and Canada, enough to fill those countries’ landfills within four years if it were discarded instead.
But rendering also brings in money — for Smithfield, $1 billion of its $14 billion in annual revenue.
“Once you get to the processing stage, the manufacturers often own the product,” said Dana Gunders of the National Resources Defense Council, who wrote an issue paper on food waste. “It’s certainly in their interest to use every little bit of it that they can,”
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 10 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 biofuels, 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 1920’s, 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’s 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.
“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,” said Messman, the plant manager. “We save hearts. We can save liver, either edible or pet food.”
Raw material is delivered to the rendering side from the slaughterhouse side by underground augers.
“All the byproducts 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.”