New pork plant touted for cleanliness

RANTOUL – Company, state and local officials agree that Meadowbrook Farms' new $25 million pork processing plant will be a clean operation.

In fact, they all say the worst-case scenario for the plant – the failure of a sewage pretreatment operation – would only result in higher utility bills for the farmer co-op that owns the plant.

"So far it seems to be progressing well," said Rantoul Public Works Director Greg Hazel. "It has met all my expectations and more."

Hazel estimated American Premium Foods' plant would mean an additional $105,600 a year to the village's wastewater division, an additional $105,600 a year to the water division and an additional $305,400 a year to the electric division.

Jim Burke, chief operating officer for Meadowbrook Farms, a cooperative of hog farmers from Illinois and surrounding states, said his organization has been sensitive to environmental issues since the co-op began planning the facility.

"One of our top priorities has been being a good neighbor for the people of Rantoul," Burke said.

Burke expects construction of the plant to be completed by the end of the year.

While the Rantoul plant will initially process 3,000 hogs a day and employ 210 people, Burke said he anticipates the company may later add a second shift, increasing employment to 300 people.

At least one area organization is critical of the pork plant, however.

Kathleen King of Champaign, a spokeswoman for Students Improving the Lives of Animals, called the Meadowbrook Farms facility a slaughterhouse.

"I personally am concerned, not only about the treatment of the non-human animals, but also about the persons working at the slaughterhouse," King said. "I think that slaughterhouses are one of the most dangerous places for people to work. I would hate to hear about humans being injured in the process of slaughtering animals."

Burke said the Rantoul plant will be safe for employees and will be modeled after environmentally friendly facilities in Europe.

The farmer shareholders who will be providing hogs for processing will be directed to stop feeding them hours before the animals are trucked to Rantoul to minimize the production of waste on the trucks that arrive at the plant.

"When you smell a hog barn or a hog truck, you are normally smelling pig manure," Burke said.

Trucks will be kept to strict schedules that prohibit more than two trucks arriving within a 45-minute period, and, once the trucks arrive in Rantoul, they'll roll into an enclosed, air-conditioned building. Burke said that all air within the facility is circulated and monitored.

"It's more than just an odor issue for us; it is also an animal welfare and meat quality issue," Burke said. "If we have pigs sitting on a truck for hours and hours in the hot sun, we end up with what we call downers: pigs that arrive at the plant (dead) because of the heat on those trucks.

"In terms of animal welfare, a hog that arrives at the plant deceased cannot be processed. So we can lose a lot of money when we don't have good air flow in our delivery area. We're not just doing all this in order to be nice guys, but there are also financial reasons to do this as well."

Once the hogs are unloaded, plant workers will immediately put citronella spray on them.

Burke said the citronella does more than prevent the spread of swine odors.

"The hogs are a type of animal who likes to establish dominance within a group through their sense of smell. If we eliminate the odor, they can't tell which pig is from which group, and it makes them a lot more docile.

The citronella spray prevents them from fighting among one another. And if you don't mind the smell of citronella, it kills any hog odor.

"We also spray the hogs to cool them off because we want them to be comfortable and relaxed. It gives us a better quality product."

Burke said one priority for plant workers on the production floor will be cleanliness.

"It's plenty clean, so our neighbors shouldn't be affected by any smell," he said. "You wouldn't expect to go to a Schnuck's or County Market and see animal waste all over the floor and think their butcher shop will remain open. This is a big butcher shop here."

Both Burke and Hazel said the worst possible scenario for Meadowbrook Farms would be for the pretreatment wastewater plant to totally malfunction.

But even if that happened, Hazel said, it would only mean higher utility bills for the cooperative.

Hazel said Rantoul's waste treatment plant on the east side of town is capable of processing untreated pork waste.

Once the liquid part has been completely treated, Hazel said, it is dumped into Salt Fork Creek. Solid sludge that can't be diluted or broken down is trucked to a landfill in Danville, Hazel said.

Rantoul's waste treatment plant was built while Chanute Air Force Base was still open, Hazel said, so the plant can handle up to 8.3 million gallons of wastewater.

Today, the plant takes in only 2.7 million gallons of wastewater, roughly one-third of its capacity.

"The pork plant will give us another 250,000 gallons," Hazel said. "We could handle several more pork plants with no problems."

In fact, Burke said Rantoul's additional waste treatment capacity was one of the factors that led the co-op to choose Rantoul over 20 other competing communities last year.

If a malfunction at the pretreatment plant should force Meadowbrook Farms to give the village untreated pork waste, Hazel said, he would have to divert additional personnel to the municipal wastewater plant to treat it there.

If that happened, Hazel said, he would pass that cost on to Meadowbrook Farms with a surcharge of an additional $1,300 a day.

"The village would be charging us an arm and a leg," Burke said. "Rantoul could pay for a new gymnasium every year if we spent that much money."

Since it is in Meadowbrook Farms' interest not to pay that surcharge, Burke said, the co-op has even more incentive to make sure the pretreatment plant is working properly.

Hazel said his staff will be taking samples of the waste produced by the pork plant on a monthly basis and have those samples tested by labs in Savoy, Peoria and Minnesota.

Burke said the Rantoul plant will differ from many North American pork facilities in that it won't be processing cuttings and fat that fall from the hog, also known as rendering.

"A lot of plants do rendering on site and leave a lot of nasty stuff in open air trucks in the sun. That's a bad start for a friendly neighbor," he said. "We agreed with the village early on that we wouldn't do any rendering on site."

Burke said plant workers will collect renderable materials every day in a truck inside an enclosed garage.

The materials will be trucked away to rendering plants in the Midwest, where they will be converted into choice white grease.

"It provides a little extra income for Meadowbrook Farms," Burke explained.

He said major cosmetic companies often use choice white grease to produce women's makeup and depend on pork companies as their suppliers.

"So women around the world are really putting pig grease on their faces every morning," he said.

Burke said the plant didn't need a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture because it doesn't include a holding barn. It doesn't need the barn because the hogs have already grown to their appropriate weight.

Burke said the plant also didn't need a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers because it won't be dumping waste into a river. A pork plant in Beardstown, for example, dumps into the Illinois River, so that plant needed approval from the Corps of Engineers.

In fact, the only permit that Meadowbrook Farms needed was a state permit to operate a waste pretreatment facility on site.

Toby Frevert, manager of the Division of Water Pollution Control for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said his agency issued that permit on June 20.

Frevert said the permit requires Meadowbrook Farms to have inspectors on site to self-monitor and self-report the operation of the pretreatment plant. In addition, Frevert intends to send state inspectors to Rantoul from time to time to monitor the plant's performance.

"This permit is like a driver's license," Frevert said. "If a typical 16-year-old obeys driving laws, there will be no problems. The same is true with licenses for processing plants."

If Frevert's inspectors identify significant environmental problems, he said, he would refer the matter to the Illinois attorney general's office for enforcement.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave its approval for a loan for the project after Dennis DiPietry, an agricultural economist from Columbia, Mo., met with village leaders, co-op officials and the plant's citizens' advisory committee.

DiPietry said federal agricultural officials hired him to confirm the technical feasibility of the project, to look at the plant site and village wastewater facilities to ensure they were suitable for a pork plant, and to hear citizens' views of the project.

"I've been impressed with what I saw in Rantoul," DiPietry said.

You can reach Tim Mitchell at (217) 351-5366 or via e-mail at tmitchel@news-gazette.com.

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