Where’s the beef from?
(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series.)
Ever wonder what happens to oil and grease that gets dumped into bins behind just about every restaurant around town?
It’s not wasted. Most of it gets recycled back into the human food chain. Rendering companies haul it away and turn it into “yellow grease” that gets blended into poultry and livestock feed.
Restaurant grease. Chicken and cattle love it.
Which brings us to an interesting point: Cattle evolved to eat grass and shrubs. Now some Nevada County ranchers are considering providing just that – grass-fed beef.
Financially, Nevada County’s ranchers aren’t getting rich. Most, if not all, have a full-time job in addition to ranching. Their numbers are dwindling, and their average age is about 60.
So, instead of selling 9-month-old cattle to feed lots for a pittance, some ranchers think they could hang onto them for another year, fatten them on grass and hay, and sell the meat at a premium, maybe at farmers markets or restaurants here.
Ranchers have banded together to do that elsewhere, including the Yampa Valley in Colorado, where ranchers sell their grass-fed beef to Steamboat Springs-area ski resorts.
A handful of ranchers from Nevada, Placer and Sierra counties, with the help of farm advisors, formed a committee to explore the idea of selling beef to Lake Tahoe-area ski resorts. In June, they plan to have one of the Colorado ranchers fly here to share his experiences.
There’s a growing demand for alternatives to feedlot cattle among some beef-lovers, who cite concerns over antibiotics in feedlot diets, synthetic hormone injections to spur cattle’s growth, and mad-cow disease.
“There’s a lot of people that are specifically eating here because it’s safe. Especially with all the scares around mad cow and all that,” said Ike Frazee, owner of Ike’s Quarter Cafe.
Ike’s is one of at least two Nevada City restaurants that serve meat only from Niman Ranch. Headquartered in Bolinas, a hippie-ish Marin County coastal town, the company sells beef, pork and lamb raised without growth hormones, and given feed without antibiotics or meat byproducts.
Tastes better too, Frazee said.
“It (costs) a little bit more, but it’s worth it, and people will pay,” he said. “People go, ‘What do you do to your burgers?'”
* * *
The first stop for Nevada County restaurant grease on its way back to the table is at one of several rendering plants in rural parts of the Central Valley.
Sometimes called the “silent industry,” about 260 rendering plants nationwide each year take in billions of pounds of slaughterhouse leftovers, restaurant grease and dead livestock, and bounce much of it back into the human food chain via livestock feed.
Think of it this way: Only about half of every animal used for human food is edible. Other parts, including viscera, bones and ligaments, are dealt with at rendering plants.
Renderers grind up this raw material and cook it until the fat comes off, sort of like the fat that surfaces on a cooking pot of soup. Roughly one quarter of the raw material produces fat, another quarter produces protein (called meat and bone meal), and the rest is water.
As for restaurant oil and grease, an estimated 4.5 million pounds of the stuff is collected annually from Sacramento-area restaurants by several rendering plants for processing into yellow grease and subsequent blending into animal feed and other products, said a 1998 study funded by the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Nationwide, about 175 million pounds of restaurant grease is rendered, said Michael Koewler, chief operating officer and third-generation employee of his family’s business, the Sacramento Rendering Co.
One major California chicken producer alone buys one million pounds of yellow grease a week from various renderers for blending into feed, Koewler said.
Knowing that you’re one step away in the food chain from processed restaurant grease is nothing to be squeamish about, said Fred Bisplinghoff, a Fort Meyers, Fla.-based veterinarian and former president of the National Render’s Association.
“We take it and clean it up and take all the impurities out,” Bisplinghoff said. “We test if for 104 organic compounds. It’s cleaner than the water you drink.”
Chicken feed can contain as much as 3.5 percent yellow grease; cattle feed, 4 percent yellow grease, Bisplinghoff said.
Bisplinghoff, 78, remembers when having chicken for Sunday dinner was a big event.
“It was a luxury dish,” he said. Now – thanks in part to rendered products in feed – chicken is one of the cheapest meats you can buy and the United States has the cheapest meat prices in the world, Bisplinghoff said.
You can even track yellow grease’s price in The Wall Street Journal, Koewler said.
We feed processed animal parts back to animals, even if – like cattle – they’re vegetarian by nature.
“Is it safe? Yes, it’s safe. We have been feeding (livestock) these recycled products for at least 100 years,” said Don Franco, a veterinarian who is a vice president of the National Renderers Association and president of the Animal Protein Producers Industry.
Franco said renderers recycle about 50 billion pounds of raw material a year, which otherwise would go to a landfill or be incinerated.
Pathogens are killed off by rendering’s cooking process, Franco said. Materials are heated to 250 to 285 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 to 90 minutes, depending on the facility, he said.
But mad cow disease is caused by a mutant protein called a “prion.” Conventional cooking doesn’t kill prions. Neither does irradiation or chemical disinfection and sterilization.
When contracted by humans, mad cow disease causes variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Always fatal, a person can be infected for years before the onset of symptoms such as confusion, difficulty in walking, and tremors, quickly leading to death. There’s no treatment or even a test to detect it, except by examining a person’s brain at autopsy.
The rendering industry is quick to point out that mad cow disease has never been detected in the U.S. and that the federal government took steps in 1997 to prevent it here.
Namely, the government forbade feeding cattle the protein – such as meat and bone meal – from rendered cattle, sheep and other four-bellied animals called ruminants.
That’s because it’s thought that British cattle contracted mad cow by being fed the rendered remains of sheep infected with a similar sheep borne disease called scrapie.
But U.S. cattle can still eat blood meal – basically dried blood – from rendered cattle, even though blood contains protein. And cattle can still eat fat from rendered cattle. In fact, tallow made from the offal, or rendered organs of cattle, is a feed additive for dairy cows. Also, cattle also can eat rendered remains of animals such as horses and swine.
Franco said, “We have not had mad cow disease in this country” and regulators have built numerous “firewalls” to make our beef as safe as possible.
That sentiment also was expressed in a 2001 report by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which was asked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to evaluate U.S. measures to prevent the spread of mad cow disease.
“BSE (mad cow disease) is extremely unlikely to become established in the U.S.,” the report concluded. And if it did show up, “the disease is virtually certain to be eliminated from the country within 20 years.”
But a less rosy picture was painted in an 83-page report released in January by the General Accounting Office. The Congressional oversight agency found that more could be done to prevent the spread of mad cow disease here.
“While BSE has not been found in the United States, federal actions do no sufficiently ensure that all BSE-infected animals or products are kept out. Or, that if BSE were found, it would be detected promptly and not spread to other cattle through animal feed or enter the human food supply.”
Mad cow disease has shown up in 23 countries and caused more than 100 human deaths so far, the report said. In Europe, more than 5 million head of cattle have been destroyed. A USDA report said that by 1993, about one quarter of all British farms with cattle, or 22,399 farms, had confirmed cases of mad cow disease.
As far as human health is concerned, the disease seems to be hard to catch.
“While scientists believe at least several hundred thousand people may have eaten BSE-infected tissue, many believe (the disease) is difficult to contract,” the report says.
(Tuesday: A Nevada County rancher, advocates for grass-fed beef, and a taste of grass-fed steak.)
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