Hot Grease

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 6, 2013

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On normal shifts working the mean streets of Baltimore’s northwest police district, officer Maunda Williams catches people engaged in typical Mobtown crimes, like shooting people. But just after midnight on Oct. 18, 2012, Williams’ shift started with something oddly amiss, right before his crime-keen eyes. It was going down right next door to the police station, at the Roost, the beautifully retro drive-in eatery that is far-famed for its deep-fried fare, especially its delectable lake trout.

Long lines of fried-food connoisseurs regularly form at the Roost, so its fryers work overtime, needing fresh oil on a regular basis-and producing huge volumes of used oil that restaurants like the Roost sell to companies that recycle it into animal feed or biofuels. That night, Williams had reason to suspect the Roost’s prodigious quantities of old fryer fat were about to go somewhere they shouldn’t, which would rob revenue from both the Roost and its used-oil recycler.

Williams, after returning to his personal vehicle to retrieve some items he needed for his shift, “observed a white Freightliner truck with a green tank on the back” as it entered the Roost’s property, he wrote in court records. Williams “began to observe the actions of the truck driver in the rear of the restaurant” as the man “extended a long blue hose” from “a vacuum pumper type of tank on the rear of his truck” to two 300-gallon tanks “that are kept in the rear of the location to store the used cooking oil of the Roost.”

Williams knew a thing or two about the used fryer-fat market-more than, say, a casual fan of The Simpsons, which in 1998 ran an episode, “Lard of the Dance,” in which Homer and Bart try haplessly to enter the grease-theft racket.

“This used oil is very valuable,” Williams wrote, “and is often specifically targeted by thieves who have the proper trucks and pumper equipment needed to syphon this used oil,” which is “then sold to recycling companies and is worth approximately $3.00 per gallon.”

The two tanks, Williams pointed out, bore signs announcing them as “the property of Valley Proteins, Inc.,” yet “this truck did not bear any markings or company information,” which “struck me as odd,” since “I have seen these types of vacuum trucks in the past and have always observed the recycling company information to be clearly displayed.”

Williams “decided to approach and investigate further.” After returning to his patrol car and driving next door to the Roost, he “asked the driver/operator if he was authorized to collect this used oil,” the court records state. When confronted, the driver, Anthony Lamont Fitzgerald, explained that “he was a subcontractor for Valley Proteins” and, as proof, showed Williams a black binder that “contained detailed listings of restaurant used oil collection locations from across” Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.

Williams was not impressed. He called Valley Proteins, using the phone number displayed on the Roost’s tanks, and reached Marcus Singletary, described in the court records as “the transport manager who is in charge of the used oil collections for this region.” Singletary explained that “his company does not employ any subcontractors and no one other than his employed drivers are authorized to collect used oil from their storage tanks.”

Since Fitzgerald isn’t a Valley Proteins employee, Singletary confirmed what Williams suspected: “If he’s taking oil from our tanks,” Singletary said, “then he’s stealing from my company.”

Busted-and not for the first time, nor the last. This was the second of three grease-theft cases brought against Fitzgerald since 2011. He got suspended prison sentences and probation for the first two, and is currently facing fresh charges in Baltimore County.

Fitzgerald should count his lucky stars that it was the lightly punitive local authorities that brought the boom down on him. It could be much, much worse. As accused grease thieves in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have learned over the past year, more potent law enforcers are on the case: the serious hardasses working for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Though used cooking oil is often stored outside, next to restaurants’ garbage Dumpsters, it is not waste. It is “yellow gold,” as Homer calls it. Thanks to the efforts of Valley Proteins and other well-heeled interests that lawfully collect used cooking oil for processing and resale, pilfering it is now being prosecuted at the federal level-and if convicted, those charged so far are facing as much as 15 years in federal prison and a $500,000 fine.

 

“Grease thieves are huge,” says Neil Gagnon, Valley Proteins’ district manager, whose bailiwick includes its Baltimore plant in Curtis Bay. Formed in 1949 and headquartered in Winchester, Va., the company is one of the bigger players in the rendering industry, an ancient trade that cooks, cleans, and separates the leftovers of food production to make raw materials for a myriad of products, from biofuels and animal feed to paint and cosmetics.

Back in 1995, Gagnon took City Paper on a tour of Valley Proteins’ Baltimore plant, one of 15 the company operates in states from New York to Florida. Located in Curtis Bay on the banks of Cabin Branch, the plant’s grinders, cookers, and centrifuges process millions of pounds of offal and restaurant grease each year, separating the liquid fats from the solid proteins. The fats are rendered into high-end tallows and lesser-valued “yellow grease,” while the proteins become meat-and-bone meal, the core ingredient of animal feed.

Restaurants used to pay renderers to haul away their used oil. That changed in the mid-2000s-Gagnon pegs it to about 2005 or 2006-as rising fuel prices prompted increasing demand for biofuels that can be used in petroleum diesel vehicles. As a result, restaurants’ waste oil has become a hot commodity, so renderers and biofuel producers pay restaurants about $1 per gallon for it-sometimes up to $2 per gallon-and then turn a tidy profit by processing and reselling it at higher margins.

At Baltimore Biodiesel Cooperative, which has fueling stations at the Mill Valley General Store in Remington and at Merriweather Post Pavilion, members can purchase biodiesel currently for $3.75 to $4.50 per gallon, according to its website. Yellow grease, meanwhile, has been going for between $2 and $3 per gallon, according to market surveys. So every gallon of grease stolen is one less gallon that renderers and biofuel producers can buy, taking a bite out of their profits.

“It’s such an issue that we have a full-time lawyer on it, to help deal with the millions of pounds that grease thieves steal from us on a weekly basis,” Gagnon explains, adding that the Baltimore/Washington, D.C./Philadelphia area “is the hardest hit for our company,” though “it’s a nationwide issue.”

That lawyer, Charles Gittins, says that “across our company, we estimate that we lost over $5 million last year to grease theft. It’s serious money.”

Gittins says “my job is basically to try to educate law enforcement” about grease theft, “track the problem,” and “hire investigators to identify the loci of big theft.” He was hired by Valley Proteins in May 2012 after leaving a long and notable career as a military-justice defense attorney for those accused in some of the most notable military scandals in memory, from the Navy’s Tailhook sex scandal to the torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners and the Haditha massacre of unarmed civilians in Iraq. So Gittins is no stranger to taking on big adversaries.

In joining Valley Proteins’ team, Gittins signed on with an outfit with some serious industry clout. The company’s president, Gerald F. Smith Jr., chairs the National Renderers Association (NRA), the industry’s alliance of 51 companies that operate more than 205 rendering plants in North America, according to its website. The NRA has been taking grease theft very seriously, including the creation of a Grease Theft Task Force that Gittins has joined.

Earlier this year, the NRA published a “Restaurant Grease Theft Backgrounder,” which puts some numbers on the industry-wide scope of the problem. From 2005 to 2012, the number of grease-theft incidents reported increased 150 percent to nearly 6,000, while the number of criminal charges filed jumped from 12 in 2005 to 188 in 2012. An industry survey found that the volume of grease stolen annually stands at about 8 percent of the total collected-an amount valued at nearly $40 million in lost revenue. The tanks and stout locks that are meant to prevent theft often get damaged during the crimes, adding an additional loss of around $3.26 million per year.

Given those eye-popping loss numbers, it’s no wonder the NRA and Valley Proteins took the offensive. A key moment occurred in November 2012, when the NRA hired the Freeh Group, a consulting firm headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, to meet with senior DOJ and FBI officials in Washington. As Gittins explained it in an article in the October issue of NRA’s magazine, Render, the purpose was “to educate them on the magnitude of the grease theft problem in the rendering industry and the collateral criminal activity that accompanies the individual thefts, including interstate transport of stolen grease, money laundering, and tax evasion.”

Based on what’s been happening since, hiring the Freeh Group appears to have been a smart move. Grease thieves have definitely been feeling the pain from the feds.

 

“Actually, I don’t do the biodiesel,” says Richard Arturo Figueroa of Hunt Valley. He’s talking on his cellphone while driving, and there’s a lot of loud noise in the background, like what a big truck might make, but he understands he’s talking to a City Paper reporter. “I just collect the waste vegetable oil, that’s all we do. We pick it up from restaurants and have a facility where we process it.”

Is that the place in Middle River? “Not anymore, that’s somebody else.” Then, only about a minute into the conversation, he explains that he’s approaching a toll booth and really should get off the phone, and maybe call back in an hour.

Figueroa seems not to know that he and his business-Rafxcel Services-are in the middle of a federal grease-theft investigation in Maryland that has resulted in charges and a guilty plea from Ahmad Qaabid Abdul-Rahim, the 37-year-old owner of a College Park grease-collection company called Waste Not Inc. If Figueroa does know he’s squarely in the middle of this ongoing probe, he’s being mighty coy about it.

According to Rahim’s plea agreement, Waste Not in 2011 had 650 legitimate contracts to collect waste vegetable oil (WVO) from restaurants, but Rahim also stole grease-and “would take both his legitimate WVO and the stolen WVO to R.F.’s collection facility” at 1701 Leland Ave. in Middle River. Once at the facility, the WVO “would be sold to a fuel company located in Pennsylvania, among others,” the plea agreement states, and “the Pennsylvania fuel company would send trucks to” the Middle River warehouse, “load the WVO, and transport it back to the fuel company’s location in Pennsylvania.”

Money from the sales went into bank accounts held by Figueroa’s company, Rafxcel Services-and generated a ton of revenue: $1,575,982 between Jan. 18, 2012 and Sept. 20, 2012, according to Rahim’s plea agreement, which says that Waste Not’s take from this arrangement was $361,356 for 180,678 gallons of WVO-an even $2 per gallon.

But here’s the rub: Rahim sold the stolen WVO at a marked-down price of $1.05 per gallon, according to the plea agreement, which means his legitimate WVO-86,500 gallons of it-sold for $3.03 per gallon.

Thus, Rafxcel Services paid about two-thirds less for stolen grease than for legitimate grease.

This is why Gittins says he wishes law enforcers would crack down on grease buyers who are only too happy to accept low prices with a wink and a nod, and thus enable the thieves to convert their quarry to cash.

“The thieves are selling it well under market,” Gittins says, “so the buyers should be on notice.”

Steve Blankenship, the logistics manager in the Washington, D.C. region for Greenlight Biofuels-which, like Valley Proteins, has been working hard to get grease thieves caught and prosecuted-adds that “that’s the problem, the buyers aren’t really interested in what the source is. And the problem is not going to solve itself without some sort of regulation of the buyers, to make sure it’s coming from legitimate sources.”

 

Rafxcel Services was not alone at the Middle River warehouse. Also there was a company called Green Initiative Global (GIG), a Delaware concern that advertises in Manhattan as a used-restaurant-oil collector. GIG’s resident agent in Maryland, Anthony Jean Claude, registered in February with the U.S. Department of Transportation as a carrier of “WVO Waste Vegetable Oil” out of the same Leland Avenue address as Rafxcel Services’ Middle River warehouse.

Claude has another Maryland company, MDGB (short for Maryland Green BioFuel), based out of an Arbutus address it shares with a company called Parking Management Enforcement, which does business as PME Towing-an outfit also mentioned in Rahim’s plea agreement. Corporate records show Rahim and Claude formed Parking Management Enforcement in 2006.

After several years operating PME as a towing business, in May 2010 “A.C. suggested that he and Rahim could make money stealing WVO from restaurants in Maryland and Virginia and selling it to out-of-state oil companies,” Rahim’s plea agreement states. So the two did just that, “using Rahim’s flatbed tow truck from PME towing.” From May to October 2010, the plea agreement states, they “simply stole the WVO using the flatbed truck and a tank and mechanical pump.”

After Rahim started Waste Not, he obtained a proper vacuum-pumper truck, got legitimate grease-collection contracts, and hired a driver, referred to in the plea agreement as “J.L.,” who suggested they use the truck not only to service the contracts but also to steal WVO from other locations. From October 2011 until September 2012, J.L. would take the truck to Northern Virginia “to collect stolen WVO,” the plea agreement states, and deliver it to the Middle River facility, where “A.C. used this warehouse to collect the stolen WVO, process it, and store it” until arranging for “the refined WVO to be sold to a fuel company located in Pennsylvania, among others.”

Attempts to reach Claude at numerous phone numbers in the Baltimore area, Washington, D.C., and Florida-where in 2009 and 2010 he was a director of a now-defunct Miami company called MD Biodiesel Corporation-were fruitless.

GIG and Rafxcel in July were sued by a Hawkins Point company, BakerCorp, which leases heavy-duty tanks, pumps, and filtration systems. BakerCorp’s lawyer, Mark Lynch, says the company “leased grease collection tanks to Rafxcel,” and successfully sued for their return. Lynch says grease collection is a “popular use” of BakerCorp’s leased tanks, stressing that “BakerCorp had absolutely no idea that the tanks were going to be used potentially for any illegal purpose.”

It takes a lot of money to lease a grease-collection tank from BakerCorp, according to Blankenship. “They’re not cheap,” he says, adding that “if you have the means to lease one, you’re in it big-time.”

Figueroa and Claude have not been charged publicly with any crime related to the Rahim investigation-though Rahim was charged on Aug. 27 with interstate transportation of stolen goods in Maryland U.S. District Court and entered his guilty plea on Sept. 23. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 3.

A call back to Figueroa at the appointed time, an hour after he talked on his phone while driving, went to voicemail. He never returned the call. A quick Google search turns up the likely location of the new facility he referred to in the earlier call: Rafxcel Services is now at 8213 Rosebank Ave. in Dundalk, on the banks of Back River.

 

On Aug. 15, a little less than two weeks before Rahim’s grease-theft charges were filed in Maryland, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia issued a press release: “Philadelphia Man Charged with Stealing Cooking Oil.”

That’s a quaint headline in the realm of federal law-enforcement press releases, which usually announce milestones in efforts to take down more sinister-sounding criminals like drug kingpins, child pornographers, or big-time financial fraudsters.

But the recent federal grease-theft crackdown has meant more such publicity coming out of law enforcers’ PR teams. The Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office press release announcing Rahim’s case was titled “Owner of Waste Collection Business Pleads Guilty to Transporting Stolen Waste Vegetable Oil.” An even wordier one was issued by the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s Office last December: “Three Indicted in Alleged Theft of Used Cooking Oil From Hundreds of Massachusetts and Rhode Island Restaurants.”

The fact that these press releases are being written at all, though, is evidence of progress for Valley Proteins, Greenlight Biofuels, and other big players in the kitchen-grease collection business. It means their concerns are prompting tangible action at the highest levels of national law enforcement, and the resulting publicity is spreading the word about the grease-theft phenomenon.

The Rhode Island case is replete with an inside snitch, thousands of gallons of allegedly stolen oil transported in approximately 50,000-pound loads, an attempt to camouflage the alleged theft operation by outfitting a pickup truck with a camper cap and a quiet pump, and a mobster-probing FBI agent interviewing grease buyers.

Three men were indicted: brothers Andrew and Bruce Jeremiah-the owners and operators of three companies, Jeremiah Motors Corp., Removal Services, and Green Energy, who both have prior drug-conspiracy convictions-and one of their truck drivers, Anthony Simone Sr., also a drug convict, who cooperated with the FBI in the final stages of the investigation and pleaded guilty in the resulting indictment. The Jeremiah brothers’ trial is scheduled to begin on Nov. 5, and if convicted, they face possible 15-year prison sentences and $500,000 fines.

The case records allege that starting in January 2012, a New Hampshire trucking company, Abenaqui Carriers, delivered 806,740 pounds-almost 110,000 gallons-of used cooking oil from the Jeremiahs’ operation to a New Hampshire biodiesel producer, AMENICO, which is short for American Energy Independence Company. Between Jan. 31, 2011 and Nov. 5, 2012, the court records show, AMENICO paid the Jeremiahs’ business Removal Services $429,268.07 for deliveries of used cooking oil.

As part of the ongoing Jeremiah investigation, FBI agent Jeffrey Cady-a veteran of taking down New England mobsters-in May interviewed two companies that buy unrefined used restaurant oil to establish the going price per gallon, according to court records. Mopac, a rendering company in Souderton, Pa., was willing to pay approximately $1.75 per gallon, and EnviroTek USA, a biodiesel producer in Tewksbury, Mass., would pay $2 gallon if “there was a large volume of oil being sold.”

The Jeremiah case also has an interesting tidbit about tactics in the grease-theft world intended to lessen the attention unmarked pumper trucks attract. Andrew Jeremiah allegedly wanted the collection operation to be more “mysterious” so they could “rob things . . . right in the [expletive] daytime,” court records state. To that end, he allegedly took “several steps towards camouflaging his Dodge pickup truck,” including “attempting to outfit it with a low profile oil tank, a quiet pump with a custom muffler, and a camper cap” without windows.

The Philadelphia case is against Bernard Corbin, whose indictment remained under seal from February until shortly before he was detained in August. His trial date, initially scheduled for October, was recently reset to start in January. He’s accused of setting up a company called Simply Green that “hired employees to travel around the Philadelphia area and steal used cooking oil from storage containers used by restaurants and then bring the cooking oil back to the Simply Green facility,” according to the indictment.

Corbin is also accused of supplying his employees with “bolt cutters to cut open the locks which restaurants used to secure” the waste-oil containers, and “vans containing holding tanks and pumping systems to pump the stolen oil” out of the containers.

The Corbin indictment also describes the fate of Simply Green’s allegedly stolen oil, illustrating the multi-tiered, multi-player, integrated nature of the grease-theft economy. Corbin allegedly “sold the cooking oil to K.D., a cooking oil merchant,” who sold it to “J.K., a broker located in New Jersey,” who sold it to “a New York company named ‘B Green Group,'” who “hired a Minnesota trucking company to drive to Pennsylvania to pick up the stolen oil. After further processing, the oil was shipped around the United States.”

If the feds’ cases against Corbin and the Jeremiah brothers proves the scenarios they’ve alleged, and if the Rahim probe expands from its already admitted complexity, there are many, many players in the grease-theft world who may find themselves in the authorities’ crosshairs.

After all, each of these probes in ongoing, and the available evidence suggests they could travel far and wide.

 

Valley Proteins’ Gittins knows all about Anthony Fitzgerald, the guy Baltimore police officer Maunda Williams busted at the Roost last fall.

“He came out of our Baltimore plant,” Gittins explains, claiming that “two of our former employees have been out there stealing. We call them ‘the Two Anthonys.'”

The other, Anthony Barner, has not been charged criminally-though Valley Proteins sued him in September 2011, several months after he resigned as one of the company’s truck drivers who picked up used restaurant grease.

“He kept his uniforms, the keys to the locks at the restaurants, [and] the manifest” that listed Valley Proteins grease-collection customers, says Gittins, echoing what the lawsuit claims.

On June 6, 2011, according to the lawsuit, Barner was stopped and ticketed by Rockville police “after he caused a grease spill from a green vacuum truck he was driving on Rockville Pike”-and when this happened, he “was wearing a Valley [Proteins] uniform” and had a Valley Proteins “service manifest” listing the company’s “restaurant customers on Rockville Pike.”

Then, the lawsuit continues, on Aug. 31, 2011, also while wearing a Valley Proteins uniform, Barner went to America’s Best Wings in Randallstown-whose owner confronted him, prompting Barner to leave.

The lawsuit, which was settled after three lawyers for Valley Proteins spent more than a year litigating the case (including relentless efforts to serve Barner), concludes that he “has taken or attempted to take grease” from Valley Proteins customers “while misrepresenting himself” as an employee.

While trying to serve him, the lawyers discovered that in August 2011, Barner started a company in White Marsh called Planet Fuel Recovery-another feel-good corporate name along the lines of others in the picture of the grease-theft probes, like Simply Green, Waste Not, Green Initiative Global, and Green Energy.

Gittins says Valley Proteins got its property back and the lawsuit was dismissed.

Meanwhile, Greenlight Biofuels’ Blankenship says his efforts to make grease thieves feel the pain have started to bear fruit too. The thefts are “so easy to do,” he explains, but by “educating law enforcement on the problem, saying, ‘This is a problem, we need some help,’ it’s starting to get on their radar.”

Blankenship’s optimism is tempered by the scale of the problem, though. “We filed 647 police reports about grease thefts last year,” he explains, “and we’ve filed about 350 so far this year. But I believe theft is not down. It’s unbelievable the number of people out there doing this. The thieves are just getting smarter.”

Meltdown: What Happens to Dead Animals at Baltimore’s Only Rendering Plant

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 25, 1995

Consider these items: Bozman, the Baltimore City Police Department quarter horse who died last summer in the line of duty. The grill grease and used frying oil from Camden Yards, the city’s summer ethnic festivals, and nearly all Baltimore-area and Ocean City restaurants and hotels. A baby circus elephant who died while in Baltimore this summer. Millions of tons of waste meat and inedible animal parts from the region’s supermarkets and slaughterhouses. Carcasses from the Baltimore Zoo. The thousands of dead dogs, cats, raccoons, possums, deer, foxes, snakes, and the rest that local animal shelters and road-kill patrols must dispose of each month.

These are the raw materials of Baltimore’s fat-and-protein economy, which are processed into remarketable products for high profit at the region’s only rendering plant, in Curtis Bay. In a gruesomely ironic twist, most inedible dead-animal parts, including dead pets, end up in feed used to fatten up future generations of their kind. Others are transmogrified into paint, car wax, rubber, and industrial lubricants. Until the mid-1980s, some of the plant’s products were used in soap and cosmetics as well.

Like the use of human placenta in cosmetics and eating Rocky Mountain oysters, rendering is a phenomenon that many have heard of but few are tempted to ponder. Unlike those odd human practices, though, rendering answers a vital societal question: What to do with the prodigious amounts of carrion, offal, and fat that our society leaves in its dietary wake? Rather than classifying it as foul waste and incinerating it or burying it in a landfill, why not cook it into its constituent parts – fat and protein – and make a pretty penny doing it?

Valley Proteins does. The Winchester, Virginia-based company owns and runs Baltimore’s only rendering plant, tucked along the grassy shores of Cabin Branch, a tributary of Curtis Bay in the extreme southern tip of the city. Although a few out-of-state rendering plants attempt to compete in Baltimore, Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant has a regional lock on the profitable recycling of dead animal matter and kitchen grease into ingredients for feed and industrial products.

Based on estimates from Neil Gagnon, general manager of the Curtis Bay plant, about 150 million pounds of rotting flesh and used kitchen grease from around Baltimore are fed into the plant’s grinders and cookers each year, resulting in about 80 million pounds of the plant’s three products:  meat and bone meal, tallow, and yellow grease. Most is reconstituted as chicken feed for North Carolina and Eastern Shore poultry farmers. Some goes for dry pet food. And some of the tallow is used by chemical “splitters,” who turn the fat into fatty acids, which in turn are used in thousands of products.

 

During a midsummer day’s visit to the plant, I gag upon first contact with the hot, putrescent air. My throat immediately becomes coated with the suety taste of decayed, frying flesh.

“You picked a bad day to visit a rendering plant,” Gagnon says, emphasizing the effect of the summer heat by describing the typical state of the “deadstock” picked up from Pimlico Race Course, which is delivered to Valley Proteins’ pet-food operations in Pennsylvania. “By the time we get them, they’re soup,” he says. “Summertime is bad around here.”

Gagnon himself is far from offended by the overwhelming miasma, though. “It smells like money to me,” he likes to say. Later in the visit, back in his office, he estimates Valley Proteins’ profit margin at somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent.

A load of guts, heads, and legs, recently retrieved from a local slaughterhouse, sits stewing in one of the raw-materials bins at the plant’s receiving bay. “That’s very fresh offal,” Gagnon says. He explains how it will be fed into “the hogger,” a shredder that grinds up the tissues and filters out trash, before it is deep-fried in cookers charged with spent restaurant grease and blood.

After being thoroughly fried, the solid protein is centrifuged, pressed, run through a magnet to remove metals, ground up, sifted, cooled, and stored in a silo. Today mid-way through the process, cooker operator Bud Kellner smiles, grabs a warm, brown, fibrous thatch of cooked tissues out of the production line in the cook room and shouts out above the mechanical din: “That’s all protein material! I could eat that right now!”

The liquid fat is cleaned, filtered, cooled, and stored in five tanks – two for tallow, a higher-grade fat product, and three for yellow grease. Kellner doesn’t mention whether he considers the fat potable.

The rendering processes at Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant create three byproducts:  waste water, which goes into the city’ Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant at nearby Wagners Point; the stray fat and protein molecules in the air that generate the plant’s horrid stench; and reclaimed dirt, metal, plastics, and other trash, which go to the nearby Quarantine Road Landfill. Two boilers, which jointly generate 2,000 horsepower, run the whole operation.

While waiting at the receiving bay to watch another truckload of offal (this one from Baltimore County slaughterer J.W. Treuth & Sons, Inc.) tumble into a raw-materials bin, Kellner sums up why rendering is important. “If it don’t go here, it’d be laying on the side of the street somewhere.”

Blood and body fluids leak out from under the trailer gate. “Cranberry juice,” Gagnon remarks as we gaze at the repulsive pale-red effluvium. Suddenly a hot gust of wind blows droplets of it on our bare legs. As the bloated stomachs and broken body parts slide en masse from the trailer bed to the bin, Bud shouts out, “Watch out for the splatter!” After the load is delivered, a single jawbone rest on the pavement amid the bloody-liquid. Bud adds a final piece of sage advice, “Make sure you take a shower.”

 

Valley Proteins didn’t always have a virtual monopoly over the rendering business in Baltimore. In 1927, The National Provisioner, a meat-industry newsletter, published a map and list showing the geographical distribution of the nation’s renderers and slaughterhouses. At that time, Baltimore had 15 of Maryland’s 21 rendering plants, and there were 913 plants in the nation.

Today, according to Gagnon, Baltimore has one of the state’s six to 10 plants, which are concentrated on the Eastern Shore to serve the poultry industry. The nationwide figure has dropped to 286, according to Gary G. Pearl of the Fats and Oils Research Foundation. (Affiliated with the National Renderers Association, the foundation supports “increased utilization and new uses for products that are produced with the 50 percent of the animal that is not acceptable for human consumption,” Pearl says.)

Valley Proteins’ eight plants draw raw materials from the entire mid-Atlantic region, according to J.J. Smith, president of the company.  Smith describes the company’s territory as “from Newark [New Jersey] to Savannah [Georgia], and 300 miles inland.”  Its three-generation mini empire began in 1949 with company patriarch Clyde Smith’s buyout of an existing plant in Winchester, Virginia.

According to Baltimore City land records, Valley Proteins purchased the Curtis Bay plant in 1984 for $2 million from Benedict K. Hudson, president of another rendering company, Kavanaugh Products, which had purchased the property in the 1960s. Five of Valley Proteins’ eight plants were originally owned by other renderers, Gagnon says.

J.J. Smith says the industry’s trend toward concentration of ownership picked up momentum about 20 or 30 years ago with the creation of a market for “boxed beef.”

“Whereas cattle used to be sent to market in halves or quarters, and every community had its own slaughter facilities,” the company president explains, “now the slaughtering is consolidated in the Midwest, and they ship [the meat] out in boxes of 20- or 25-pound chunks.”

Boxed beef reduced the need for the neighborhood slaughterhouse, or abattoir.  According to Smith, “a new movement toward close-trim meat and tray-ready beef” similarly is eliminating the need for butchers and meat cutters in supermarkets because even more of the meat preparation occurs in Midwest slaughter plants.

“Baltimore used to have abattoirs all over the place,” Smith says.  Now Baltimore City has only one, a kosher slaughterhouse in the Penn-North area.  The 1927 Biennial Census of Manufactures, cited in the 1929 industry classic Inedible Animal Fats in the United Statesby Food Research Institute economist L.B. Zapoleon, indicates there were 40 slaughterers and meat packers in Baltimore at that time.

The decline of Baltimore’s slaughterers and butchers has meant less raw material for rendering.

“In 1965, at any given supermarket, we used to pick up [waste meat] three to five times a week at 1,000 pounds each.  Now we do it once a week at 600 pounds,” Smith says.  That’s an 80 to 90 percent drop in volume, and, as Smith often points out, “volume is what we thrive on in this business.”

Thirty years ago, according to Smith, 85 to 90 percent of renderers’ materials came from supermarkets and slaughterhouses.  Today, he estimates that a little more than half of the raw material for the Curtis Bay plant is from those sources.  The other half is kitchen grease and frying oils from restaurants, the proliferation of which he believes has made up for about a third of the loss resulting from the boxed-beef phenomenon.

“People used to eat at home more often,” Smith says.  “But now there are many, many restaurants, and people eat out all the time, so there has been an explosive growth at that level over the last 30 or 40 years.”

During this same period, the industry also underwent a technology shift.  In 1965, Dupps, a Germantown, Ohio, equipment manufacturer, started to make “continuous cookers,” which quickly replaced “batch cookers’” as the industry standard.

Batch cookers restricted the rate of processing because after each batch was cooked the cookers had to be emptied and prepared for the next load.  Continuous cookers made nonstop rendering possible, and the quantities the plants could handle grew greater over the ensuing years.  Today Dupps makes a continuous cooker that can handle the equivalent of 22 batch cookers, according to Smith.

“The change in technology was not a matter of new ways to cook,” Smith explains.  “It was a matter of bigger and bigger scales.  It was more efficient, but it was also more competitive for raw material.”

In Baltimore’s rendering industry, lower volumes of meat-packing and supermarket waste and higher production capacities combined with another factor – the dramatic rise of the poultry industry – to spell an end to all but one plant in the region.  Baltimore was a red-meat-packing town caught completely off guard by the continuing surge in chicken consumption, which began about 20 years ago.

“There were very few poultry-eviscerating plants in the 1960s,” Smith says.  But as the poultry industry expanded in the South and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, those regions’ need for rendering increased. Baltimore City, meanwhile, was left with closed-down meat-packing plants, slaughterhouses, and rendering plants.  Only one of each remains.

Finally, the proliferation of environmental regulations has further encouraged ownership concentration in the rendering business. “Environmental requirements got expensive, so it became a trend to sell out to competitors who can handle the changes,” Smith explains. For the remaining firms, he says, increased regulation “was a two-edged sword.  It was expensive because it required high capital investments, but it was also a barrier for a startup company to compete with you.”

The changes amount to a classic case of “the bigger fish swallows the smaller fish,” Smith says. Pearl of the Fats and Oils Research Foundation agrees: “The general rule has been fewer and larger, with individual plants covering larger geographic areas and the investment per plant becoming much greater in order to meet environmental and water-quality standards.”

 

The use of dead pets, work animals, and wildlife as raw material is an aspect of the rendering business that neither Gagnon, Smith, nor Pearl likes to discuss. When they do address it, they emphasize its limited role and contend it is more a public service than a profitable practice.

“This is a very small part of the business that we don’t like to advertise,” Smith says. His main worry is bad publicity from animal-rights activists, who complain about the use of animal corpses for profit.

“We provide that as a service, not for profit, he says, pointing out that “there is not a lot of protein and fat” in dead pets and wildlife, “just a lot of hair you have to deal with somehow.” Smith believes that “shaming the American public into taking care of their pets is the way to combat the problem the animal-rights people talk about, not hassling the companies that manage the waste the pet industry produces in terms of dead animals.”

Smith says that while Valley Proteins sells inedible animal parts and rendered material to Alpo, Heinz, and Ralston-Purina, among other pet-food makers, dead-pet products are not among the products sold to these companies. “They are all very sensitive to the recycled-pet potential,” he explains. “They want no pets in the food they sell.  We guarantee them that the product we sell to them does not come from the pets we collect.  We handle them separately.”

A tiny amount of pet byproducts does get into the material sold to pet-food makers, however, according to plant general manager, Gagnon. Valley Proteins does have two production lines: one that uses only clean, fresh fat and bones from supermarkets and butcher shops and another that includes the use of dead pets and wildlife. However, the protein material is a mix from both production lines. Thus the meat and bone meal made at the plant includes materials from pets and wildlife, and about five percent of that product goes to dry-pet-food manufacturers, Gagnon says.

The higher end production line – the one without pets – makes tallow, fats whose “light colors give good consumer appeal,” Smith says. The low-end line makes yellow grease, which goes mostly for poultry and swine feed; as Smith notes, “the chicken doesn’t give a shit what it’s eating.”  Local feed makers that buy Valley Proteins’ products include Southern States in Locust Point. Gagnon says there are no longer any local purchasers of the plant’s tallow products.

 

Most of the dead pets that end up in Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant originate from the city animal shelter in Southwest Baltimore. Earl Watson, administrator of the city Health Department’s Animal Control Division, is very aware of the use of dead pets and wildlife in Baltimore’s fat-and-protein economy, and he knows Valley Proteins’ overarching role in it. “Anywhere there are dead animals, they pick them up,” he says.  “They have a monopoly on that because no one else does it.  That means they can charge what they want for the service.”

An average of 1,824 dead animals per month pass through the freezer at the city animal shelter and onto trucks bound for Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant, according to shelter statistics for April, May, and June of this year. Most of them were euthanized (three-month average: 1,339), though many were DOAs (three month average:  485). (DOA’s went up significantly in July and August, with 655 and 815 respectively, because of the hot weather and the city’s Clean Sweep program that targeted specific areas for cleanup.)

Here at the animal shelter, a staff of 10 wardens works every day but Sunday, picking up animals and bringing them to the shelter, while the shelter’s two veterinary technicians euthanize animals to make room for the newcomers.

“Having to euthanize animals all day is not pleasant,” Watson says, “especially if you like animals.”  He and shelter attendant Edward Rigney lead the way to Room 162 – Euthanasia – and Watson bows out after Rigney pulls open the door to the freezer, in which a dead fox lies stretched out on a table surrounded by barrels filled mostly with dead dogs and cats.  Fleas leap among the carcasses.

“Ten or 12 were euthanized this morning,” Rigney says. “Sometimes it’s thirtysome that get it. “Things get backed up over the holidays.”

Outside the freezer, atop another table, lie a bottle of the poison product Fatal-Plus, several syringes, a medical-waste container, and a hacksaw resting on a towel.  The hacksaw is for rabies testing:  “When people get bit, we have to cut the dogs’ heads off and test their brains,” Rigney explains, adding that the veterinary technician “never uses that – she just twists them off.”  Fatal-Plus is sodium pentobarbital; the warning label reads:  “Do not use in animals intended for food.”  This warning apparently does not apply for animals intended for pet food which is where the protein from these euthanized animals ends up.

 

Following Valley Proteins route driver Milton McCroy on his rounds is a colorful tour of Baltimore’s fat and protein sources.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, McCroy enters the STAFF & DELIVERIES entrance of the city animal shelter and loads dead animals into his truck. He then continues his rounds to Parks Sausage, the city’s lone remaining meat-packing plant, where he picks up waste meat, and to the slaughterhouse in Penn-North, where he loads up with offal, before taking the shipment back to the Curtis Bay plant and dumping it in the raw materials bin.

“It’s a dirty, smelly job, yeah – but that’s all it is, dirty and smelly,” he say philosophically, leaving someone wondering what could be worse.

At the animal shelter, McCroy hefts two dogs stiffened by rigor mortis into the trailer of his truck, which is rigged for the rendering business with a lift, a catwalk, and a barrel cleaner. He then empties and cleans 11 barrels of assorted animals.  As he works, he describes where his load is bound. “Chicken feed, cosmetics, fertilizer, dog food, whatever – the way they cook that bad boy [the Curtis Bay plant] up, it don’t make no difference what’s in there,” he says, then pauses and adds: “When they start putting human bodies in there, that’s when I quit.”

After a brief stop at Parks Sausage, where McCroy empties 10 or so barrels of rancid meat and grease, he heads off to the slaughterhouse, next to a long-defunct animal-hospital building. He backs the truck up to a storage shed, hauls a bloated sheep carcass onto the lift, and dumps it in the trailer, then starts preparing to empty many barrels full of heads, legs, hides, and guts. Joking, he starts to make the jaws of a cow’s head clack, then gives up on the puppet how. He hoists two sheep’s heads in the air, one in each hand, and asks, “Which one do you want?” He punctures a stomach with a pocket knife and squeezes out the brown ooze inside.

The jocularity ends when the plant’s owner catches wind that the press has entered the property. As we explain that we are following McCroy on his run for a story on rendering, he ushers us off to the adjacent sidewalk. “With all our problems with OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], MOSHA [Maryland OSHA], EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and the rest, there just is no good publicity for us right now,” he explains.

A plant employee explained later that tightening environmental regulations and concerns about the bacteria E. coli are coming down hard on slaughterhouses; any attention would just mean more problems. (A subsequent check with state and local regulators did not reveal any outstanding cases or suspected violations at the city slaughterhouse.) Disappointed in being shunted from the property, we leave without a proper good-bye to the good-natured McCroy.

 

Baltimore’s fat-and-protein economy has changed dramatically over the decades, but it remains essentially a profitable form of recycling.  The National Renderers Association sums up the industry nicely in its 12-minute video, Food for Life:

The rendering industry provides many needed services to the community at large; it safely recycles materials that otherwise would be a nightmare to dispose of; it creates products that are essential to modern life; it provides the needed to nutrition for our livestock and fisheries, so that a hungry world can be efficiently fed; and it supplies our pets with a healthy diet for longer, better lives.

So the next time you munch on fast-food fries (often cooked in grease the restaurants subsequently sell to Valley Proteins) or let your unfettered pet roam the city streets and backyards, or apply a little makeup to your face, or wax your car, or barbecue some chicken breasts, pause a second to think: Is this somehow connected to the Valley Proteins rendering plant in Curtis Bay, either on the donating or receiving end? Chances are it is.

 

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

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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.