Mad-cow fears put renderers under microscope

Mad-cow fears put renderers under microscope

June 5, 2001 The Gazette (Montreal) by Mark Kennedy

First, there was the smell, a blend of garbage-bin and barnyard.

It hit us the moment we pulled into the parking lot of Lomex, an industrial plant in Montreal's north end.

Then, there was a thunderous bang every few minutes. The kind you hear in duck-hunting season. KABOOM!

"Sorry," Lomex president Martin Couture would later say, after providing a 20-minute, gut-wrenching tour inside the plant. "We have a problem with seagulls."

The solution: a cutout figure of a hunter in the back of a truck, whirling from side to side, with the occasional blast adding to the effect.

Cosmetics to Plastics

Lomex runs a rendering plant in the city's Riviere des Prairies district, where leftover parts of slaughtered animals are sent. Twenty-four hours a day, trucks arrive from across Quebec, the Ottawa Valley, and northern Vermont.

Everything deemed unfit for human consumption - the stomach, the offal, the organs, feathers - is ground, boiled and turned into products.

Some remains are rendered into tallow, used in the manufacture of cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, paints, candles, tires, perfumes, textiles, plastics, inks, polishes, cleaners and solvents.

Much of the rest becomes a reddish-brown powder called meat and bone meal (MBM). Rich in protein, it is sold as a supplement for animal feed. It can be legally fed in Canada and the U.S. to pigs and poultry.

For decades, cow-based MBM was also fed to cows. But that was prohibited in Canada and the U.S. in 1997, once it became apparent that the practice spread mad-cow disease in Britain.

Now, with new concern that mad-cow disease could spread world-wide, the spotlight is on rendering companies - a business so little-known it was once called the "invisible industry."

There are calls for Canada and the U.S. to match the precautions taken in Britain and Europe. There, MBM is banned in feeds given to all animals - not only ruminants like cows and sheep, but also pigs and poultry.

Critics say the ban should be extended here for at least two reasons:

- What if mad-cow disease, known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), can be spread to pigs and poultry? Scientists know that some humans who eat BSE-infected meat contract the fatal neurological disorder known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD).

In one experiment, a pig got BSE after its brain was injected with the contaminant. But there have been no reported cases of non-ruminants showing mad-cow symptoms just from eating MBM (a fact critics dismiss, because the animals are likely slaughtered before BSE's incubation period - four to seven years in cows - runs its course).

- Even if pigs and poultry can't get BSE, what if MBM produced for pigs and poultry accidentally gets into cow stalls? It's a potentially disastrous problem called "cross-contamination," one that experts say contributed to the spread of BSE in Britain and Europe.

Author Wants Complete Ban

Among those urging the federal government to impose a full ban is William Leiss, president of the Royal Society of Canada, and co-author of Mad Cows and Mother's Milk, a book on Britain's response to the threat in the 1980s.

"Stop recycling animal protein," he says. "All of it. Period. That's the answer, because of what we know. The extraordinary toughness of this agent. You can't kill it. It survives autoclaves. It survives chemicals and disinfectants."

But Humphry Koch, Vancouver-based vice-chairman of the National Renderers Association, says such a move is unnecessary and could cause new problems. Koch says Canada's 26 plants that produce MBM, owned mostly by three companies, receive about 3 billion pounds of animal waste a year.

"If we weren't there, everybody would know it. From an environmental point of view, we provide a tremendous service. And at the end of it, we produce useful products. And we believe they're safe."

If you couldn't feed MBM to animals, Koch adds, you'd still have to dispose of it. "What do you do with it? Do you put it in garbage dumps, where you'd have rats and all the other stuff? Do you burn it? If you do that, there are environmental consequences."

This fall, Koch will become chairman of the National Renderers Association, the trade group representing the industry in Canada and the U.S.

He says the industry - which calls itself "the original recyclers" - has been around since "biblical times."

"I guess everybody wonders, could it happen here?" he says of the BSE crisis that has enveloped Europe.

"My response to that is that we have very strong safeguards in place. And if there are better ways of doing it, we're open to looking at them. But we should do it in a scientific manner, not in an emotional manner."

Dr. Brian Evans, chief veterinarian at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, says the government regulator is considering whether to extend the ban on MBM to all animals.

But he agrees that society should consider the consequences. If the meat and bone meal is incinerated, for instance, there could be increased levels of air-borne dioxins to worry about, as well as fallout on grazing lands. Still, he said, it's a valid issue for public debate.

U.S. Found Problems

Critics like Mike McBane, of the Canadian Health Coalition, say the risk of cross-contamination poses a major threat. He notes, for instance, how in January of this year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a report that many of that country's feed mills were not following rules to prevent cross-contamination.

Shortly afterward, U.S. regulators determined that 1,222 Texas cattle ate a small amount of meat and bone meal after a mill accidentally shipped the wrong feed. There's no evidence it was BSE-contaminated. But that's not the point, say critics. It could have been.

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