Murphy: Rendering a Decision

A significant new regulation affecting the meat industry was just passed in Los Angeles County.

Before deciding, “So what?” consider that LA County is not your ordinary governmental jurisdiction. An ordinary county typically encompasses a fair-sized city or maybe several smaller towns, as well as rural areas typically dedicated to farming or forestry.

Los Angeles County, which was incorporated a decade before the Civil War began, consists of 4,751 square miles. By comparison, that’s bigger than Puerto Rico and Rhode Island.

Combined.

Within its borders, LA County contains 10.2 million residents, which is more people than all but 10 of the states. So when its officials impose regulations, we’re not talking about some inconsequential municipal rulemaking, but a measure that affects multi-millions of people.

The regulation at issue is one aimed at controlling odors at rendering plants in the industrial area of Vernon, Calif., and the slant given the story by the Los Angeles Times this week is revealing. The article, titled, “Stench of carcasses and spoiled meat has long plagued Southeast L.A. Here's how that'll change,” began as follows:

“After years of enduring the stench of spoiled meat and decaying carcasses from nearby rendering plants, residents of southeast Los Angeles County could finally see some relief under new rules approved Friday,” the article stated. “Air quality regulators adopted long-delayed measures aimed at reducing odors from Vernon-area rendering plants, which they say can drift into neighborhoods miles away, causing headaches, nausea and respiratory irritation.”

That’s pretty loaded terminology and departs from journalistic objectivity by using pejorative terms like “stench,” “decaying carcasses,” and “spoiled meat.”

Now, that’s not to say that the odors emanating from a rendering plant aren’t objectionable. Believe me, I’ve visited dozens of them over the years, and the odors can be overpowering. But a straight-up demonization of the rendering business belies the benefits that accrue to society.

Consider the operation of landfills. For rural areas where private owners still run what are colloquially known as “dumps,” the scene on site can be disgusting. Piles of trash, garbage and unidentifiable refuse. Smells originate from some mixes of waste materials that you don’t’ even want to identify.

Likewise, the neighborhood where I live is but a few miles, often downwind, from a euphemistically named “recycling operation,” a business that takes in lawn and garden clippings, lumber mill waste and other organic materials (including the aforementioned “spoiled meat”) and composts them to produce soil amendments, mulching materials and organic fertilizers. Those are all useful and valuable products, but the smells coming from that plant when the wind shifts can be highly irritating and seriously annoying.

But what’s the alternative to either ugly landfills or smelly recycling operations? I’ll tell you what it is, and I only have to go back to my own childhood in the 1960s to describe it.

About a quarter mile down the street in the semi-rural area where our family lived was a family rumored to have moved to upstate New York from somewhere in Appalachia. Whether that was true or not, we ignorantly called them “hillbillies,” and truth be told, they had at least half a dozen hound dogs roaming their property and at least as many junked cars and trucks littering the weeds growing in front of a ramshackle farmhouse that hadn’t been painted since World War I.

Here’s the point. Behind their house were woods that extended to a steep gully. At the bottom of the slope was a fairly large creek where we kids would hang out, looking for frogs or swinging over the water on the vines that hung down over the water. But not 50 feet away was a huge pile of garbage, trash, discarded furniture, and even a rusted pickup truck with its entire front end sunk into the creek.

That family had simply taken anything they no longer wanted or needed to discard and threw it down into the creek, as if the water would somehow whisk it away.

Nobody loves garbage, or spoiled food, or the carcasses of animals that have died. Nobody wants to see them; nobody wants to smell them.

However, there are only a limited number of alternatives; Either excavate giant pits and try to bury them; find some ravine and just throw them in; or try to figure out a way to process these materials and create something of value.

A Better Alternative
That’s what rendering plants attempt to do, and for decades, they produced tallow and oils used in lubricants and such protein by-products as blood and bone meal that could be added to animal feed. The scare of mad cow eliminated that last option, but there is still value in processing the waste generated by meat processing, rather than hauling it off somewhere (very costly and energy-intensive) to be buried, with all the attendant problems associated with that alternative.

The new standards target the LA County’s five rendering plants. Companies will now have to enclose some outdoor operations and implement other odor-control measures. As the Times noted, the new rules follow delays by regulators and opposition from industry, which warned that they would result in job losses.

The rules give rendering facilities 90 days to meet such new standards as covering and washing out trucks before they leave the plant and limiting the time that animal remains are stored outdoors. The rendering plants will have 3½ years to install enclosures to keep odors from drifting off-site.

In July 2015, Vernon-based Baker Commodities warned that compliance would be so costly the company would be forced to shut down operations and dismiss more than 200 employees.

However last week, Jimmy Andreoli II, Baker Commodities assistant vice president, pledged to “do our best to meet the requirements of this rule.”

Good call, Jimmy.

Because despite the negative characterizations, rendering plants perform a valuable public service. They just need to do so with better controls of the odors that come with their territory.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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