This is a transcript of the first episode of The Invisible Industry, a podcast brought to you by the North American Renderer’s Association (NARA)
Anna: Welcome to The Invisible Industry. A podcast where we discuss and educate on everything you didn’t know you didn’t know about agricultural rendering brought to you by the North American Renderers Association, or NARA. I’m your moderator, Anna Wilkinson, Director of Communications for NARA. And joining us today is our host, Marcus Wintzer, this episode’s co host, Ridley Bestwick and our first ever guest, Michael Koewler.
Thanks, everybody for joining us today. I’m going to go ahead and turn it over to you gentlemen to get us started.
Marcus: Thanks, Anna, for the introduction and thank you all for joining us today. As Anna mentioned, I’m your host, Marcus Wintzer. Rendering has always been a big part of my life whether I was aware of its influence or not. My father, Carl, worked for G.A. Wintzer & Son Company all of his adult life just like his father before him and so on and so forth all the way back to 1848.
I also had the pleasure of working for the family business every summer during my college years and full time for over a decade. Our co host today is no less experienced and his name is Ridley Bestwick. How are you today, Ridley?
Ridley: I’m doing great, Marcus. So I’m Ridley Bestwick. I work for West Coast Reduction, which has a head office in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. And our company is in the rendering business servicing Western Canada. And we’ve been servicing Western Canada for over 60 years now. And I’ve been working for the company for about 25 years. And I’m also a past chairman of NARA.
Marcus: Great. Thank you very much, Ridley. Hopefully, today’s episode will serve as a primer to the rendering industry. In the most basic sense, rendering is recycling. It is a process that takes unwanted meat and other animal coproducts and repurposes those materials into something usable. And this is no small amount of material.
In the United States, 50% of an animal is considered to be inedible. In fact, if the renderers currently operating in the United States ceased operations today all available landfills would be full within the next four years. In future episodes, we hope we can educate you further on this industry that you may not have known existed and show you how rendering is sustainable with its three pillars of environmental, social and economic impact.
We’ll also discuss topics of interest to those in the rendering and its related industries and attempt to show you why rendering is especially important in the reduction of food waste. Finally, we hope to host a plethora of dynamic guests. Speaking of which, our first is Michael Koewler of Sacramento Rendering, as Anna mentioned earlier. Michael, please tell us about yourself.
Michael: Good morning or good afternoon, Marcus and Ridley. Thanks for having me. I always look for opportunities to talk about our beloved industry. As you said, my name is Michael Koewler and I work for Sacramento Rendering Company. Our history is not as long as storied as the Wintzer & Sons Company but we do date back to 1913 in Sacramento.
We have a business here that services Northern California, central California and Northern Nevada. And we have about 180 or so employees. We’re fighting like everybody else to get through this COVID issue. But fortunately the rendering industry in the state of California has been deemed critical infrastructure. So it’s allowed us to keep all of our employees working here throughout the pandemic.
And I, like Ridley, was a former chair of NARA and I look forward to the opportunity to discuss some pertinent issues with both of you today.
Marcus: Thanks, Michael. If you had just met someone for the first time how would you explain rendering to them?
Michael: Well Marcus, you know, let me digress, just for a second. I know our topic today is the invisible industry. But in Sacramento, which is not unlike a lot of places throughout the country, it’s got some development pressures on the plant where we currently reside. We’ve already moved the facility in 1955 to our current location. So on the local level, we’ve been everything but invisible.
We’ve been very visible. And there are some things that have happened in terms of technology over the course of years through very good allied companies that had made the rendering industry put it in a position where it can cohabitate with neighbors. And because of these poor planning decisions, the rendering industry, especially in California is somewhat under, a little bit duress.
But having said that, I’m always excited about talking about the industry. When I describe our industry I usually talk about a three legged stool. And most rendering businesses not all, but most rendering businesses have a component that services the restaurant industry. It services the meat packing industry and the grocery industry. And it also services the dairy industry.
Now, California is the largest dairy state in the country, so the renderers over time have had to step up and ensure that the flow of those products can be sustainably repurposed and reused in different products that we come in contact with every day. So it’s a business that’s dynamic. It’s got a lot of different feel to it.
On the buy side, on the sell side, there’s just a lot going on, not unlike other businesses in California. But it’s, as you said earlier, a very environmentally friendly business. Economically challenging at times, but can be productive.
And there’s a lot of social components that go with that in terms of human health and animal health that the rendering industry supports animal Ag in California and all over the United States and Canada and it plays an important role in our agricultural systems.
Ridley: So Michael, when you talk about a three legged stool, I understand the various service streams and where the products come from, but what’s the point you’re trying to make about the fact that the stool is three legged?
Michael: Well, I talk about the stool because it puts kind of the economic sustainability of our business in context. And if you lose one of those legs, then you have a tipping point in our business.
So it’s imperative that a street renderer like us and like G.A. Wintzer and Son and West Coast Reduction have all those components operating succinctly so that we can ensure that the business stays economically viable.
California has got a very unique relationship, the California renderers have a very unique relationship with the state of California, the Department of Food and AG. And we have come a long way, a long way into forming a bond or a partnership and finding a very sufficient place for rendering in the state’s agricultural business.
I mean, California, you know, is a huge AG state with exports and supplying vegetables and different products to feed our people in this country. And without rendering having that critical part in that infrastructure, there’s a lot of allied industries that might tend to crumble if rendering wasn’t there.
When I started in this business in the 80s, there were 17 or 18 rendering plants in the state of California. Much of what was family owned businesses. Now we’ve got four companies left and so it’s a real challenge for California to find that balance that not only offers a playing field for the rendering industry, but also appreciates its place in agricultural production.
Ridley: I guess my next question, Michael, is 25 years ago when I joined West Coast Reduction, I attended a NARA convention. And I remember I was approached by another renderer who worked as an owner in a family business. And I was a young guy, 40 years old, I guess.
And he said to me, how was West Coast Reduction able to attract you to come and work in their business? And I didn’t really understand his question. I mean, it kind of shocked me, and I probably answered that as a young CPA, I wanted to go and work in industry. I wanted to work in the manufacturing industry.
And I always like to be kind of close to the earth, whether it was forest products or mining or agriculture. So when that opportunity presented itself as a family business, manufacturing, agriculture, I jumped at it. I still don’t really know what he was getting at other than he said it was hard for them to attract young talent to their industry.
Maybe you can shed some light on what he was talking about. And I’m also curious. You have a lot of passion. I mean, I’ve known you now for 25 years, and you’re one of the most passionate guys that I hear talking about rendering. That’s why you’re our first speaker. So yeah. Do you know what he was talking about in terms of attracting talent? And then tell us what makes you passionate?
Michael: Well, I’ll tell you, Rid, it’s a good question. First of all, I’d like to preface the answer by saying that you’re still young, and West Coast was lucky to get you because you’ve done a lot of good work for West Coast as well as the entire industry.
I don’t know where he was coming from, but I can tell you what really strikes me kind of funny, and it’s always kind of makes me feel good about our company and other companies like ours is that we retain talent. My average length of employment at this company is somewhere over 15 years. That’s good news, bad news. But it tells you that the things that we were doing in this industry, people like it.
They like what we stand for. They like the things that we’re doing. They like the fact that we’re diversifying and getting into more products. They like the fact that we make products that go into everyday human life. And I think without that passion, we’re just another business. But for some reason, the rendering industry seems to retain talent.
Now, as far as you’re concern, or your situation is concerned, and other people I know is that because our industry is unique and it is really somewhat invisible still, we have a hard time attracting some professional people to our business. But it seems like once we get those people, we hold on to them.
And I think that says a lot about our industry, about our industry leaders, about our association, and the fact that we’re doing very good things for health and animal health and human health.
Marcus: Michael, I’ve got a question for you. I really like this question a lot, actually. What keeps you up at night in regards to rendering, anyways?
Michael: Well, I’ll tell you, Marcus, the normal business things just kind of keep you up you know, we’re in this kind of tight labor market right now with the United States electing to go to this enhanced benefits. Hopefully, that’s going to clear itself out. But I think one thing that really makes me a little bit uneasy about the future is the political component, especially in California.
And as a lot of people have said in the past, what starts in California usually kind of progresses across the country, or what happens in New York kind of progresses out to California, and everybody else in the middle gets kind of caught in between.
But the issue that really kind of makes me a little bit nervous is that government, on occasion, tends to try to pick winners and losers. And as long as the playing field is equal with rendering and other different disposal methods, whether they be now anaerobic digestion or composting, as long as they keep the playing field level, the renders can compete.
And they do compete. But when you start, as California did in the mid to early 2000, they started getting into this organic reduction and they threw a lot of money at these different types of disposal options.
In doing so, throwing all that public money at those industries, it’s kind of like self propped them up and it’s made it difficult for the renderers to compete in that environment when you’re fighting against the might of the state government.
So I think to drill it back to your original question is that as long as government doesn’t overreach and try to get into the business of picking winners and losers, I think the rendering industry is going to be fine. But it’s incumbent upon the rendering industry to make their case and show the state legislators the good that rendering does.
The fact that if you start taking away one of those legs that we talked about earlier of the stool, that you’re going to have some issues. And if you take away the material that comes from the grocery market and divert it to anaerobic digestion or divert it to composting, you’re taking away one of the components of the stalwarts of our industry and our businesses.
And that just leaves maybe dairy cows or restaurant grease. Well, in my opinion, you’ve got to have all three to be viable. And what happens to the millions and millions and millions or 100 million pounds of deadstock that we pick up on a yearly basis? What happens with that material if you don’t have economically viable businesses to recycle that material.
Ridley: Michael, I understand your point on the three legged stool and you need the volume to be economically viable. That’s your business and diversion hurts that. But if you think about it, I mean the material is being recycled if it’s going to composting, so what’s wrong with that compared to rendering? I mean the raw material is or the waste material is being recycled.
Michael: Rid, that’s a good question. In the early 2000’s, the state of California made a conscious decision to reduce the amount of organics in landfill. By 2020, they expected to reduce the organics going in the landfill by 50%. In 2025, they expected to reduce the organics going in the landfill by 75%, based on 2014 baseline numbers.
The rendering industry acknowledges that there is a place for anaerobic digestion, there is a place for composting. But when you take away products that are being recycled for a higher and better use and taking those products and downcycling, we like to use the term downcycling. When you downcycle them and take them into compost, then you’ve got a waste of resources.
Now, I’ve always acknowledged, like I said, that there is a place for composting and a place for anaerobic digestion. But when you take products that make a useful product that is beneficial to society and you take that away and you put it in a different avenue for recycling and that result of that is not as economically favorable to the society and to the state or even to the country, then you’re downcycling.
And I think that’s where rendering really kind of shows itself apart from these other alternative disposal methods. Okay, and another thing about the downcycling versus upcycling debate, if you call it a debate, is that the renderers produce an oil fraction from their manufacturing process and a protein fraction from their manufacturing process.
The oil fraction, for years and years and years and years, it usually traditionally went into animal feed and some industrial uses.
But as the rise of biofuels and the rise of biodiesel, especially in California now stretching throughout the country, we have taken a product that has been advantageous to our plight to control carbon emissions in the country, and we’ve taken a product that traditionally went into animal feed and now put it into biofuels, which is really kind of remarkable.
I’d say about ten years ago, about 90% of our product that we produce from the oil side of it went into feed. Now about 90% of that product is going into fuel, biofuels, renewable fuels.
And on the protein sector, we’ve been deemed organic by at least the state of California here on the protein that we make. So now that goes into organic fertilizer, which is becoming very popular. And we have taken some of the traditional byproducts that we make. We’ve learned how to manufacture those to make products to go into pet food.
And our association and our good relationship that we have with the pet food industry has really helped us kind of expand our business and make us even more viable.
Ridley: You referred earlier to our industry still being somewhat invisible. And obviously through this podcast we’re trying to make our industry more visible. But what’s wrong with being invisible?
Michael: I don’t think there is anything wrong technically by that term invisible because we do a lot of things behind the scenes that nobody knows about.
But on the other hand, too, like I mentioned earlier, with these different technologies that are out there, with the legislatures of different states being more and more involved in those alternative disposal methods, we can’t afford to be invisible anymore. We have to be proactive in our arguments, in the way we propose ourselves.
We have to get on the offensive or else if we don’t, these people have different kind of ideas about how the world is. I mean, we have people that live in Sacramento, about 120 or so miles east of San Francisco, but there’s people in San Francisco, they don’t know where milk comes from. They think it comes from a store.
They have no idea of the kind of infrastructure, the kind of cooperation, the kind of partnerships that we have with the dairy industry to ensure that you get milk in your store. So I think it’s incumbent upon us to be a lot more visible.
We’re able to do that, like I said earlier, with different technologies, making our plants a lot more aromically pleasing, and we’re able to tell our story, which I think in the long run is going to pay off for us.
Marcus: So, Michael, if we are to become more visible in our industry, we’re going to get more people that know what we do. They’re going to have questions. When you meet someone, they find out what you do. What sort of questions do they give you about rendering and how do you respond?
Michael: That’s funny, Marcus, because years ago, everybody kind of tiptoed around the industry. I mean, oh, yeah, we’re recyclers and we kind of left it at that. Oh, what’s rendering is it artist? Are you an artist now?
But like I said earlier, with technology getting a lot more advanced in controlling some of the organic decomposition that we’re forced to deal with, especially in the state of California where you have excess of 100 degrees for 30 straight days, you could imagine the situation, logistical situation that we are forced to control.
But the fact that we progressed so much, it’s allowed us to tell our story and to be proud of it. Because look what we’re doing. I mean, we’re repurposing used kitchen grease going into biofuels. All the trim and the bones from supermarkets are being recycled and repurposed into usable products.
The dairy cattle are picked up. If not, they’d have to go to a landfill. We recover hides for the leather industry. And that material, because it’s organic, like I said earlier, has allowed us to play in the organic farming market, which is a very high ticket in the state of California. Everybody’s in organic out here.
Marcus: Now, I know we’ve talked a lot about regulatory issues and regulation, especially with you being out in California. What sort of issues do you face in California? If you’d like to expound upon that a little bit more and how do you see those eventually affecting other parts of the United States.
Michael: Well, Marcus, unfortunately, I mean, California is a very nice state. It’s a great state, great weather, everything’s good about it. But in this kind of political environment that we’re operating in and California’s quest, to quote unquote, being the greenest state in the country, they’re making some decisions that affect the components of the rendering industry.
And we just have to be positioned through outreach, through public comments, through our elected officials. We have to be outspoken. The fly-in that we do in Washington DC every year has been a valuable tool to teach lawmakers on renderings place in the whole animal agricultural system in the country.
But in California, unfortunately, some other states just follow California’s lead. And my concern is that if we don’t set the record straight, so to speak, in California, make our case on solid arguments, that we’re going to get overlooked in the debates that happen over the course of time.
Somebody once told me that if we’re not at the table for the discussion with the greater agriculture community, then we’re going to be that meal at the table. So they’re going to have us for lunch if we don’t speak up, make sure that our arguments are solid, sound and economically and socially and environmentally viable, make the case that rendering is a sustainable industry and has a place that should go on for 100 more years.
I’d like to do just in my closing thoughts here, if it’s all right with all of you, is I’d like Marcus to pull up the EPA food hierarchy. I’d just like to touch on that just for a half a second.
Marcus: Yep, right here.
Michael: That’s the green option that’s got a lot of valuable information on that specific to North American rendering. But specifically, I just like to look at that food recovery hierarchy because that hierarchy was adopted by the U.S. EPA. And when you look at that and look at rendering’s role in that hierarchy, it just goes to show you how essential the rendering industry is.
And having us that really kind of fit two or three of those different steps or blocks of that hierarchy really shows a great picture of what the North American rendering industry does in food hierarchy, in feeding animals, in disposition of organics. So it’s a critical piece of information that I think that all renders are really kind of proud of.
And it needs to be spoken to a lot when we’re talking to these different elected officials that make some of these decisions.
Marcus: Well, thank you very much for being here today, Michael. And thanks to you as well, Ridley.
And as Michael discussed today, there are several topics that would make great episodes such as safety and rendering, environmental, social and economic pillars of sustainability, where rendered products go renewable fuel and biodiesel renderers’role in pet food and animal feed debunking rendering myths, different roles, perspectives and concerns in the rendering industry.
And if you have any other ideas for future podcast episode, you can email us at email@example.com. That’s i-n-f-o @ n-a-r-a.org. We’ll hope you’ll join us again. Thank you all for joining us today. And thanks again to Michael, Ridley and Anna.
Ridley: Yeah, and Michael, thanks again for a very insightful look at the world of rendering. I think you’ve done a great job of explaining how vital rendering is to agriculture and how we’re very connected to sustainability and society as a whole. So thanks a lot. Great job.
Michael: And I would like to just thank you for having me. I enjoyed it. Anna, I appreciate you putting this thing together. Ridley and Marcus, you guys been great co hosts. And have a good day.
Anna: Great. Thank you again, Michael. And of course, Ridley and Marcus. And thank you for joining us for our very first episode of The Invisible Industry. We hope you’ll join us again.
For more information about the North American Renderer’s Association or rendering, you can visit us at www.nara.org. Stay curious, everyone. And to all our rendering listeners out there stay seen and stay green.