Rendering Unto Oprah: How Dead Pets, Bad Brains, and Free Speech Landed Me in Amarillo

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 11, 1998


Bored and listless in the morning heat of Labor Day 1994, I jumped on an opportunity to catch a Hagerstown Suns minor-league baseball game with a friend. Oddly enough, this spur-of-the-moment foray into Western Maryland marked the beginning of a saga that eventually led me, 3 1/2 years later, to Amarillo, Texas, where I testified last month in the U.S. District Court case of Texas Beef Group vs. Oprah Winfrey.

Sitting next to us that Labor Day afternoon in Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium were two guys who said they were truck drivers for the local rendering plant, where, they explained, ingredients for dry pet food are made partly from dead pets they pick up from the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

We were at once aghast, amused, and skeptical. “No, really, it’s true,” they said blandly, sensing our doubts. “We pick up dead pets from the SPCA and take them to the plant. The plant cooks up the carcasses and other things to make stuff that goes into pet food. Honest.”

I was deeply affected by this information. During the drive back to Baltimore I couldn’t stop talking about the horrid, poetic perversion of it all. “It’s soylent green for pets,” I exclaimed. Remorsefully I recalled that as a kid I was known to eat dry dog food–strictly on an experimental basis, of course. If I had known I might have been eating refried Rover, I’d have tamed my curiosity.

Over the ensuing months I started to gather what little documentation I could find about rendering. I learned it is a necessary and little-known industry that cooks and processes huge quantities of waste fats and proteins–mostly animal tissues and used restaurant grease. From the fat, renderers make yellow grease and tallow; from the protein comes meat-and-bone meal, which is used primarily in dry animal feed.

I visited Earl Watson, then the director of the Baltimore City Animal Shelter, and discovered that the city pays Valley Proteins, a rendering company with a plant in Curtis Bay, to cart off its euthanized pets and road kill. Then I spoke with Valley Proteins plant manager Neil Gagnon in the first of several conversations about rendering that eventually led to an August 1995 guided tour of the plant with City Paper photographer Michelle Gienow. She and I also spent a day following Valley Proteins truck driver Milt McCroy from the animal shelter to Parks Sausage to Ruppersberger Meats on Pennsylvania Avenue.

These experiences became the backbone of a September 1995 City Paper cover story titled, “Meltdown: What Happens to Dead Animals at Baltimore’s Only Rendering Plant.” Among other things, the story established that dead pets and road kill are part of the raw-materials mix at Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant for meat-and-bone meal, some of which is sold to pet-food manufacturers.

I’ve had little peace on the rendering front since.

First, there were the horrified readers. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote in, concerned that sodium pentobarbital–the poison used to euthanize unwanted pets at the animal shelter–is getting into pet food. A fan of Gienow’s work was upset that the paper ran her photos of barrels full of dead pets waiting to be rendered. A critic even argued that I shouldn’t have written about pets going into pet food because Valley Proteins President J.J. Smith, interviewed for the article, said he doesn’t like to talk about it. One woman called me in tears, fearful that her dead pooch had ended up in dog food.

The initial aftermath was followed by a steady flow of interest from faraway places. Canadian journalists started contacting me after Anne Martin, a pet-food activist from Nova Scotia, used an excerpt of my article in her book Food Pets Die For. Local television news shows in Texas, Connecticut, and Kansas used the CP piece and Gienow’s photos to do their own stories. 20/20, the ABC newsmagazine, chewed up hours of my time trying to arrange a lengthy exposé of the pets-in-pet-food phenomenon, then quietly abandoned the effort.

Amid all of this, in March 1996, another wrinkle was added to what I knew about the rendering biz. The British government announced 10 people had died from new-variant Cruetzfeld-Jacobs disease (nvCJD), a human form of mad-cow disease. I soon learned that I had missed a very important point about rendering in “Meltdown”: infected meat-and-bone meal caused the spread of mad-cow disease in Great Britain. And now the disease appeared to be crossing the species line into humans. Suddenly rendering seemed to be an inadvertently insidious industry tied to a mysterious medical threat, not a sensible and profitable recycling measure, as I had previously reported. (In July of last year I made up for this oversight with another article, “Bad Brains: Maryland’s Role in the Mystery of Cannibal Brains, Mad Cows, and an Emerging Food Scare.”)

Enter Oprah. On the April 16, 1996, broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the Humane Society’s Howard Lyman, a former rancher turned food-safety advocate, declared that U.S. rendering practices are just like Britain’s, so one mad cow unwittingly rendered into feed for other cattle could cause an outbreak here just as it did there. Voluntary precautions the U.S. rendering industry had taken to prevent an outbreak in this country weren’t working, he said. And he pointed out that pets and road kill enter the cattle-feed mix. Winfrey swore off hamburgers after Lyman said a U.S. mad-cow epidemic would “make AIDS look like the common cold.”

Texas cattlemen were outraged. Four of them, led by Paul Engler of Cactus Feeders, sued under an untested law, the Texas False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act of 1995, that makes it easier for perishable-food producers to win libel suits over statements that criticize their products. (During the trial the judge dismissed that basis for the suit, leaving Engler to pursue the suit as a case of common-law business disparagement, which is very hard to prove.) Labeling Lyman’s statements “exaggerations, untruths, and innuendo,” Engler claimed to have lost $6.7 million as a result of lagging sales after Winfrey’s show aired.

Late last winter, I got a call from Leslie Ashby, one of Oprah’s lawyers. She said she had a copy of “Meltdown,” which seemed to corroborate some of Lyman’s statements about rendering. She flew up to Baltimore to meet with me and Michelle Gienow and obtain the negatives of Michelle’s numerous, gory photographs. She asked us if we would be willing to testify about what we saw of the rendering industry. “Sure,” we said.

Having been unsuccessfully sued for defamation myself, I felt it was important for my information and Michelle’s photos to be available to a jury–especially since the case involved a law that places new restrictions on speech. Besides, based on what I knew about rendering, Lyman’s statements appeared substantially accurate, if scant in some important details.

So I flew down to Amarillo to testify on Feb. 18 as the opening witness in Oprah Winfrey’s defense. Michelle unfortunately couldn’t make it, but her photographs were the main exhibit–about 50 of them, displayed one at a time on a big screen with my play-by-play commentary corroborating statements Lyman made on the show.

Cross-examining me, the cattlemen’s lawyers asked questions about Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic City Paper runs, perhaps believing the jury would think poorly of a journalist who works for a newspaper that carries a lesbian comic strip. Then they trotted out a copy of a satirical, self-deprecating sketch I wrote about myself that is tucked away somewhere on CP‘s Web site (“no respectable, buttoned-down company” would hire me “to do anything of significance,” it says). The jury thought it was funny.

But never did the attorneys try to discredit “Meltdown” or “Bad Brains.” In fact, Engler came up to me after my testimony, shook my hand, and said he thought I did a fine job on the stand and that my articles were topnotch. This from a guy whose lawsuit I’d just punched several holes in (and who went on to lose; the jury returned a verdict in Winfrey’s favor on Feb. 26).

Never say they aren’t good sports down in Texas.

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