Food-Related Whodunnit

Illustration for "HOT GREASE, The Wild West of used-cooking-oil theft"

Illustration for “HOT GREASE, The Wild West of used-cooking-oil theft”

Food and/or its by-products are not the centerpiece of any literary genre that we know of, other than cookbooks and more recently food histories.  This week’s New Yorker has a welcome addition in the annals of food as a key ingredient in other genres:

A few months ago, in a clanging, hissing plant on the outskirts of Newark, a tanker truck backed up to a deep reservoir and delivered thousands of dollars’ worth of raw material—what people in the rendering industry sometimes refer to as “liquid gold.” The plant’s owner is a company called Dar Pro, and the C.E.O., Randall Stuewe, looked on while a hose from the truck gushed a brown fluid, filled with fine sediment and the occasional mysterious solid. Slowly, the pit became a pool, whose surface frothed and eddied and gave off a potent odor of old French fries, onion rings, and batter-fried shrimp. “Used cooking oil,” Stuewe told me. “We process two billion pounds a year.”

Stuewe, a former farm kid from Kansas with a wide girth and a booming voice, explained that for decades his company’s business model was simple: collect discarded animal parts from the food industry, render out the fat and proteins, and sell them to companies that make cosmetics, soap, fertilizer, and pet food. Fifty-nine billion pounds of animal parts are processed each year in the United States; Dar Pro, with a hundred and twenty plants in forty-two states, is the country’s largest processor. In 2010, the company, then known as Darling Rendering, bought its main competitor, Griffin Industries, and began operating under the name Darling International. Stuewe instituted the snappier “Dar Pro” as part of his efforts to improve rendering’s public image. “As an industry, I’d have to give us a C-minus, maybe a D,” he says. “We never told anybody what we were doing. And we did that because we were making money. Money is perceived as evil sometimes in this country—which is a whole other discussion.”

Dar Pro is now valued at two billion dollars, and its improved fortunes have come largely from used cooking oil, collected in steel bins behind restaurants all over the country. Not long ago, the oil was used mostly by livestock farmers, who spray it onto animal feed to fatten up hogs, chickens, and cows. Lately, it has found a new life, by being cleaned, filtered, and chemically modified into biofuel. The process isn’t tidy. The wastewater has to be cooked off, and the scraps of hash browns and wontons and buffalo wings filtered out—to say nothing of the old shoes, dirty diapers, and used hypodermic needles that can end up in a bin in a back alley. But used cooking oil, correctly processed, burns eighty per cent cleaner than fossil fuels, has a smaller carbon footprint than corn ethanol, and doesn’t compete with the food supply. Nathanael Greene, at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me that it provides “probably the best of the biofuels out there.”

Read the whole article here (subscription required).

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