Mad cow: Can we stop it? Mad cow alters industry

Mad cow: Can we stop it?
Mad cow alters industry

June 3, 2001 Beacon Journal by Mary Ethridge

Four years ago, Garry Baas gladly paid for the privilege of picking up other people's dead animals.

These days, he won't be bothered. There's no money in it anymore, thanks to government regulations designed to prevent the spread of mad cow disease in the United States.

The regulations took away the largest market for Baas and other renderers, forcing them to alter dramatically the way they do business. And as a result, they believe, the country is going to end up with a larger health problem than the one the regulations were designed to prevent.

Baas knows of only one person in Ohio now willing to pick up dead animals from farms, homes and pet shelters. And that makes him wonder.

``We (Ohio renderers) picked up 13 million pounds of dead animals a year,'' he said. ``So what's everyone doing with them now? This is a hell of a problem all the way around.''

Rendering is at the vortex of the debate on mad cow -- a fatal neurological disease that affects cattle and is believed to spread the equally deadly variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease to people who eat beef.

The industry is one most people would prefer not to think about. It has long been a staple of agricultural towns across America where it was often called simply ``the glue factory'' or ``the dog food plant.''

Renderers collect meat scraps, grease and dead animals, including cows, pigs, dogs, cats and roadkill, and then cook them to extract the most useful ingredients. Those ingredients are put into everyday products such as cosmetics, lubricants, pet food and livestock feed. Traditionally, it has been a lucrative business, worth about $2.5 billion in sales nationwide last year.

``Most people don't know what we really do,'' said Terry Renner of F.W. Renner & Sons, a 107-year-old rendering business in Canton. ``They call us the invisible industry because we've always operated on the q.t. We've always preferred to keep it that way.''

Renderers in spotlight

Rendering plants, scientists generally agree, is where mad cow first took hold and incubated in Great Britain in the early 1980s. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration took particular aim at U.S. renderers -- and the feed manufacturers they serve -- with regulations designed to prevent the spread of mad cow in this country.

During rendering, animal carcasses are ground up and then decomposed in large vats by boiling under extremely high pressure. The process produces a slurry of protein under a layer of fat called tallow. That slurry is dried into a meat and bone meal product.

The FDA regulations banned adding meat and bone meal made from ruminants -- animals with four stomachs, such as cows and sheep -- to feed for ruminants.

The ban hit renderers hard. About 80 percent of U.S. sales of rendered products are to feed manufacturers, according to the National Renderers Association.

In April, Baas, president of Columbus-based Inland Products, and a delegation of Ohio renderers met with Gov. Bob Taft and other officials to explain their financial plight and to warn of the potential pollution problem posed by dead animals.

``This is an accident waiting to happen,'' said Baas, who envisions people just tossing animal carcasses any old place.

Dean Slates, agricultural extension agent for Holmes County, agrees that renderers' recent unwillingness to pick up dead animals has caused significant disposal problems. But he doesn't think most people will resort to tossing carcasses into a ravine or dragging them into the woods. For one thing, the state and federal governments -- well aware of the high disease potential -- has set up hefty penalties for doing so.

``I'd be less than honest if I said no one would do that,'' Slates said. ``But I don't think it would ever become widespread.''

Difficult choices

Outside of rendering, there are few, if any, particularly appealing choices for disposing of dead animals in Ohio.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency regulations permit farm animals -- though not roadkill -- to be buried. But it's hard to dig a big enough hole in frozen winter ground, and water and space conditions must be just right to meet EPA regulations.

Incineration is a neat solution, but the equipment and fuel are expensive.

Landfills willing to take dead animals are widely scattered and shrinking in number.

The only other option is composting, a decade-old practice in the poultry business but one rarely used outside it.

Slates has been a big supporter of composting poultry for years. But it's only been since the FDA ruminant feed ban that it's gotten serious interest from those dealing with larger carcasses, he said.

A case in point comes from the Ohio Department of Transportation. In 1999, ODOT began dumping dead deer on a median strip of Interstate 271 in Medina County, not far from Highland High School.

Until then, the department had been tossing the deer into a trash bin from which they would be hauled to the only nearby landfill willing to take them, said Bill Leitch, Wayne County manager for ODOT.

When the landfill stopped taking the deer in 1999, Leitch tried unsuccessfully to find a renderer that would handle them. ODOT was not allowed to bury the deer because of the EPA prohibition on roadkill burial. Incineration would have been too difficult and expensive. No other landfills would take the deer.

So last year ODOT turned to Slates and other agricultural agents for help. A deer-composting facility was created in Wayne County, on the eastern outskirts of Wooster. It was the state's first EPA-licensed composting facility for roadkill.

Eventually, the composted remains are expected to become fill dirt for state road projects.

Angela Evans of the Ohio EPA's division of solid and infectious waste management said the agency supports composting. Although burying dead farm animals is allowed with restrictions, it's not encouraged because of its potential to pollute groundwater.

But, she said, composting of large animals has been slow to catch on because it's new to most people and requires significant space, special training and a license.

Bigger problem looms

Baas, the Columbus renderer, thinks the solutions to dead-animal disposal aren't coming fast enough.

``We could end up with a bigger health problem than mad cow, which isn't even here in the first place,'' Baas said. ``There are plenty of other dangerous diseases in dead cattle.''

Decaying animals can transfer worms and salmonella to soil and water. They also can contaminate the ground with toxic metals.

But the potential problem may be more sinister than even Baas realizes.

Though no cases of mad cow have been found in the United States, there's no way to be certain that the disease isn't here incubating. Symptoms of mad cow do not appear for two to eight years, and cattle can be tested for the disease only after they're dead.

Paul Brown, senior researcher at the National Institutes of Health, said that if by some chance mad cow were incubating here -- and he stresses that there's no hard evidence it is -- then animal carcasses that have been buried, composted or even incinerated in the usual way would indeed pose an environmental threat.

That's because mad cow is caused not by a virus or bacteria, but by an abnormal protein called a prion, which is hardy enough to survive long periods and doses of high heat and chemicals.

``It's a very durable pathogen,'' Brown said.

To find out just how durable, Brown and a colleague took several cow brains infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- the scientific name for mad cow disease -- and buried them in a field. Three years later, the brains had decayed, but the ground where they had been buried was contaminated with prions.

``The good thing is that prions appear to stay where they're put,'' Brown said. ``They didn't appear to leach into the groundwater.''

But he added that much isn't known about the effects of prions on the environment and vice versa.

If animals grazed on ground contaminated by prions, they would likely become infected. Scientists believe grazing in prion-contaminated fields is one of the primary ways that scrapie, another prion disease, spreads in sheep. It's a likely reason that chronic wasting disease, which is also caused by prions, is spreading among deer and elk herds in six Western states.

``It's theoretical,'' Brown said, ``but, yes, the practice (burying cattle infected with mad cow) would create problems.''

Looking ahead

In the meantime, the U.S. EPA is working with scientists on regulations controlling the disposal of animals should mad cow be discovered in this country.

Those regulations call for prion-infected waste to be incinerated and for those ashes then to be treated with acid. The combination of those two processes appears to kill the prions, said the Ohio EPA's Evans.

The treated ashes would be buried in those landfills -- Ohio has two of them -- designated to accept infectious waste.

Ultimately, whether animal carcasses are burned or buried, it's money lost to the rendering industry.

Tom Cook, executive director of the National Renderers Association, a trade group, has just hired an outside consultant to evaluate how much of a financial hardship the ruminant feed ban has been to the industry. But, he believes, there are plenty of new roads open to renderers, including the use of rendered products as fuel.

``It's tough when your business is going along good and along comes a regulation that changes everything,'' Cook said. ``But that's life. You need to be flexible.''

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