New regulations make disposal difficult for cattle ranchers

Tuesday, March 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

HALFWAY — The trucks blocking the driveway to the Halfway Packing Co. describe the firm's operations with the slogan: "Our business is dead."

Never has that been more true.

The company that collected cattle and horse corpses for disposal now is dead itself, the victim of a new federal regulation on cattle renderers that is designed to prevent mad cow disease.

The federal regulation, which takes effect in April, has led to uncertainty in the cattle industry about how to dispose of dead animals. Consequently, the Halfway Packing Co. has shut down, leaving ranchers in one of the nation's largest beef cattle states without any company willing to travel from farm to farm picking up dead livestock.

"It's a hardship, and from a potential disease and public health standpoint, it's a critical issue," said Jeff Windett, executive vice president for the Missouri Cattlemen's Association. "If dead animals are not disposed of properly, they could present a health problem and a disease problem."

There are typically four options for disposing of dead livestock: burning, composting, burying and rendering. Rendering companies turn animal waste such as eyes, hooves and intestines into a variety of products including biofuels, gelatin, animal feed and various industrial chemicals.

The new U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations require renderers and animal feed manufacturers to remove the brain and spinal cord from cows 30 months and older. The rule is intended to prevent central nervous system tissue of dead cattle from getting into animal feed, because it can cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

But the health safeguards carry a cost for rendering companies and farmers because of the additional cost incurred by adding a new step to the process.

Until this year, the trucks at Halfway Packing Co. traveled more than 1,000 miles a day picking up carcasses in 20 counties through the heart of Missouri's cattle country.

Richard Spinning, the company's owner, charged about $20 per cow; he used the meat to make canned pet food and sold the hides. So unlike renderers that can use waste from the animals, Spinning could only use the well-preserved carcasses that were picked up. He estimated that to stay in business under the federal rule, he would have had to charge more than $100 per animal.

Spinning said he understands the problem farmers face in disposing of their dead livestock, but he couldn't continue losing money and staying in business as the last holdout.

"Our credit cards went further and now they're maxed out. We was dumb, we should have shut down a long time ago," he said.

Missouri State Veterinarian Taylor Woods said there aren't many good options for farmers to dispose of carcasses on their own.

"There's not much of a way that the average producer can burn a cow. They can put one on a big bale of hay or put it on brush, but it takes a lot of brush to burn a cow," Woods said. "To compost a cow, you have to cut her up and that's not a job most of us like to do. And right now, you can't hardly dig a hole in the winter months."

A spokeswoman for FDA said the agency acknowledges the new rule could pose a hardship and has been working with farmers and renderers. But spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey said the tougher rule is necessary because mad cow disease has been linked to more than 200 human deaths worldwide, none of which involved U.S. beef.

"The FDA has an obligation to put control measures in place that will prevent the threats to public and animal health that occurred in other countries," DeLancey said.

Nationwide, 54 billion pounds of animal parts are rendered each year. But only a small portion of that — several billion pounds — comes from animals that die on farms.

Tom Cook, who leads an Alexandria, Va.,-based trade group for renderers, said it's unlikely many companies are willing to deal with cows that are more than 30 months old, unless they receive them in large quantities.

Disposing of dead animals is a key part of the agriculture business, and the change has farmers searching for solutions. Someone recently dropped off a dead young cow at the Halfway Packing Co., even though the driveway had been blockaded with the company's trucks.

Some in the cattle industry fear dead cattle could be left rotting on farms or dragged into creeks, or that even properly buried animals will eventually become so concentrated that wells and groundwater could become contaminated.

Lyle Caselman, who runs a sale barn eight miles from the Halfway Packing Co., said there usually is at least one death at each of his five cattle sales per month. Without the packing company, he now has to collect the dead cattle, cover them with a tarp and haul them at night to avoid attracting attention. He buries the cattle in his pastures.

"It's been a nightmare for us so far, and it's yet really to come, because in the summer is when we lose the most of them," said Caselman, who auctions about 60,000 cattle each year at the Buffalo Livestock Market in Buffalo. "It can get really stinky."

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