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Rendering: The World's Oldest Recycling System


And yesterday on this program, we kicked off a series we're calling Wasting Food. We learned about the mountain of food we throw away every day, potentially good food that ends up in landfills. Today we hear about the opposite, turning what could be food waste into valuable products. Peggy Lowe of member station KCUR has our story.

PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: A tour of pork processing plant takes a hard hat, waterproof boots and a strong stomach.

TIM MESSMAN: Were you wanting to go to the kill side? Because if we are, we're going to have to get hairnets.

LOWE: OK - and hair nets. I'm at the Farmland Foods plant in Milan, Missouri. Manager Tim Messman is talking about the two sides of the plant. On one side is the slaughterhouse, where the animal is cut up into edible parts like, say, a pork chop.

MESSMAN: Our capacity is 10,500 hogs a day. We'll kill that in 10 hours. We'll cut that in the little over nine.

LOWE: This plant is owned by Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world. There are billions of animals slaughtered annually in the U.S. but just half of every one of those farm animals is sold as meat. That leaves a lot of leftovers, all sent to the other side of the plant for what's called rendering. Todd Scherbing is Smithfield's director of rendering.

TODD SCHERBING: Virtually every hog that comes in the gate, 100 percent of the weight of that hog is used. It either goes out in a package or is reused within the facility.

LOWE: Edible parts like lard are made into cooking oil. Other parts are made into gelatin used in Jell-O, gummy bears and marshmallows. Non-edibles like grease are made into biofuels and lubricants. Even the blood is made into livestock feed and pet food. At one stop in the plant, we find a tray covered in frost and holding tiny red beads. Scherbing says they are pituitary glands.

SCHERBING: Pituitary glands are actually pound for pound the most valuable product we make. It takes a lot of pituitary glands to make a pound used in the making of insulin.

LOWE: Medicines like insulin and the blood thinner heparin are produced from hog by-products. Lots of other pharmaceuticals too, like growth hormones and adrenaline-related drugs.

JESSICA MEISINGER: 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.

LOWE: Jessica Meisinger is with the National Renderers Association. For centuries, tallow - or beef fat - was made into candles and soap, among other things. Now 56 billion pounds of raw material is rendered annually in the U.S. and Canada.

MEISINGER: The public is becoming more and more interested in sustainability and in products that are green, and we're a major part of the sustainability of the agriculture industry so we have a really good story to tell.

LOWE: It's all those uses that ranks meat processing as one of the most efficient in the food chain. A U.N. food and ag group says just 4 percent is lost to waste in North America compared with 10 percent in the processing of grain products like corn and soybeans. The best of the processing stage is the milk industry. So it's both green and the other green - rendering is very profitable. Smithfield is a $14 billion company, 1 billion just from rendering. Dana Gunders is with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

DANA GUNDERS: Once you get to the processing stage, the manufacturers, they often own the product at that point. It's certainly in their interest to use every little bit of it that they can.

LOWE: Rendering is often said to be the world's oldest recycling system. Now people in the industry are more open to talking about it. They've even rebranded it, calling it protein conversion, but a more efficient way to describe it may be the old industry slogan - We Sell Everything but the Squeal.

For NPR News I'm Peggy Lowe in Kansas City.

MONTAGNE: And that story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. Tomorrow we'll focus on food waste at the grocery store.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: It is incorrectly said that insulin is made from a hog's pituitary gland. In fact, insulin is generated from the pancreas gland.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 18, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
In this story, it is incorrectly said that insulin is made from a hog's pituitary gland. In fact, insulin is generated from the pancreas gland.
Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.

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