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Cattle rendering is an unsung sustainability success story

DutchScenery/Getty Images Cowhides
HIDES AND MORE: Cowhides are just one product to come from the animal rendering process. A recent study, discussed at Cattlemen’s College on Aug. 10, dives deeper into quantifying the environmental, social and economic sustainability of the rendering process.
Rendering finds a sustainable and high-value purpose for every part of the cow but the “moo.”

Without the rendering industry, America would fill up every one of its landfills to capacity in just four years — just with the offal and other parts of cattle that don’t go into the butcher’s meat case.

That’s a sustainability success story that doesn’t get as much attention as it should, says Kent Swisher, senior vice president of international programs for the North American Renderers Association (NARA). Swisher spoke at Cattlemen’s College prior to the National Cattle Industry Convention on Aug. 10 in Nashville, Tenn. He was joined by Dan Schaefer, vice president of byproducts for Cargill.

Being able to adequately quantify and then share the sustainability story of the beef production cycle with consumers is how the beef industry — from the cow-calf producer to the renderer — is going to protect its future demand.   

The fifth quarter

Many cattle producers are aware of the rendering industry. How else do we get high-value products like leather for car seats and shoes; protein and fat for animal feed ingredients; household and industrial products; and biofuels? Schaefer says cattlemen may be surprised that the rendering process of one 1,300-pound live cow can result in 480 pounds of offal. That’s a lot of the cow to find a market for, but renderers do every day.

Beef tongue, for example, has a huge export market in Japan, Schaefer says.

“Today’s market in Japan is $9.50 to $10 a pound,” he says. Export markets are fans of variety meats, whether it’s tripe for Egyptian kitchens or cheek meat for barbacoa in Monterrey, Mexico.

Cattle hides are another big market for renderers. Schaefer says 85% of American hides are exported overseas for use in consumer goods like shoes, rawhide dog treats and car seats.

“China is the biggest market, accounting for 60% of the hides exported from the U.S.,” Schaefer says.

Several industries are growing in demand from the livestock rendering sector. The biodiesel industry uses tallow. Aquaculture farms use proteins captured in rendering for fish food that doesn’t rely on bait fish species taken from the world’s oceans.

Renderers are the original recyclers, Swisher adds. And being able to quantify that impact on the overall beef sustainability message is something NARA recently accomplished with its life cycle analysis.

Rendering’s hoofprint analysis

A recently published peer-reviewed study outlined how agricultural rendering benefits the environmental, social, and economic pillars of sustainability.

“Our carbon intensity is a lot lower, because we are recycling products that would otherwise go into a landfill,” Swisher says. Rendering reclaims not only the offal from the meat processing industry, but also reclaims used cooking oil from restaurants and outdated meat from grocery stores, and turns that into about 31.4 billion pounds of fat, oil and protein products each year for use in animal feed, pet food, biofuel and more.

Keeping that waste out of landfills avoids at least 90% of potential greenhouse gas emissions, compared with industrial composting, and sequesters five times the amount of GHGs as it emits, according to the research, Swisher says. As of 2020, rendering’s annual GHG reduction is equivalent to removing more than 18.5 million cars from American roads.

Water reclamation

Another sustainability success is the amount of water renderers reclaim and protect, Swisher says. “Most people don’t understand that half of an animal is easily water,” he says. The rendering process cooks water off and recycles it.

The research report says that rendering reclaims and protects 3.7 billion gallons of water each year that would otherwise be wasted. That water is cleaned and returned to rivers and streams. According to NARA, that’s enough water to fill 5,604 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

And, Swisher says, the rendering process removes grease and oils that would clog sewer and wastewater systems, contributing to improved water quality as well.

Economic and social pillars

There are emerging markets growing for products from the rendering industry, and top of mind is the projected growth in renewable biodiesel production, Swisher says. And those markets aren’t just domestic, but global as well.

The rendering industry is also an economic driver, with an annual economic contribution of $10 billion, Swisher adds. Rendering employs skilled, full-time labor with benefits; and retention rates are high, according to the study. And they are often stable employers in rural communities.

Rendering may not be at the top of every cattleman’s mind when he’s loading cattle onto a trailer for the market, but it’s important to the sustainability metrics of the whole industry.

“The rendering plant you walked into 20 years ago is not the same one of today,” Swisher says. It’s not pretty, and it’s tough to overcome the “ick” factor, but it plays a vital role to our society, he adds.


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