Cover Story


Cover image for Mar 12, 2008

Slaughterhouse. For most people (carnivores and vegetarians alike), the word brings visions of a huge animal processing factory teeming with exploited immigrants working in dangerous conditions on a bloody, unsanitary killing floor–the whole Upton Sinclair thing. (After the public outcry following the 1906 publication of The Jungle, Sinclair’s muckraking novel on the Chicago stockyards, Congress set up the Food and Drug Administration and mandated the meatpacking industry’s first federal oversight through the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA.)

As part of their operations, slaughterhouses have to dispose of the cattle waste–carcasses, bones, intestines, hooves, blood, etc.–left over after the animals are butchered and the salable portions are processed for the market. Those first slaughterhouse regulations were designed to protect public health; later, additional environmental protection regulations were implemented.

Rendering plants, usually operated in conjunction with slaughterhouses, can recycle some beef processing byproducts into ‘yellow grease’ (animal fat), as well as raw materials for cosmetics, drugs, bone meal and dog food. But since the only rendering plants in the state are on O’ahu, the two family-operated slaughterhouses on Hawai’i Island must find other ways to handle the approximately 50 percent of each slaughtered cow that doesn’t end up in supermarket meat coolers.

The biggest slaughterhouse in the state, Hawaii Big Island Beef, opened in October 2006 on Hamakua Coast land leased from the State of Hawai’i. A group headed by David S. DeLuz, Sr. invested $2 million to renovate the shuttered Pa’auilo slaughterhouse, which was built in the 1970s and run by Hamakua Sugar until the company closed almost two decades later. DeLuz, whose local Mazda and Toyota dealerships sell over $100 million annually, also owns the 10,000 acre Kukaiau Ranch.

Two years ago De Luz told the Journal (‘Where’s the Beef,’ HIJ 05/20/06) that he hoped to tap into the growing market for additive-free beef and the price ranchers get for naturally-fed cattle here will be able to compete with the price they receive for cattle shipped in from the mainland. The strategy: like Kona coffee or Maui onions, to capture the allure of the Aloha State as a value-added marketing tool.

Slaughterhouse waste

In Hilo, Brady Yagi runs Kulana Foods slaughterhouse, a business his grandfather opened in 1939. Today the operation slaughters and processes (in addition to hogs and lambs) 50-70 head of cattle every week. Like De Luz’s beef, most of Yagi’s stays on the island, where it is sold to KTA (under their Mountain Apple brand) and other supermarkets, as well as to local restaurants and hotels. Yagi said each animal weighs 1,000-1,200 pounds and about half that is left over after the salable meat is removed.

So there’s the rub: what does he do with the 25,000-40,000 pounds of beef waste generated every week? How does De Luz, who slaughters almost twice as many animals, get rid of his? Are the current federal and state regulations effective in preventing potential health and environmental damage? If so, are they being enforced?

Sparked by various outbreaks of mad cow disease over the past few years, there are worldwide public health and environmental concerns regarding contaminated beef products. Every head of cattle in Japan is now inspected (in England the figure is one in four). The once-common practice of using slaughterhouse waste in cattle feed is now banned in the United States and numerous other countries.

While the two local slaughterhouses ultimately dispose of their cattle waste differently, the initial, federally-mandated requirements are the same. Federal law requires that before disposal, the waste undergo a 3-part ‘denaturing’ process, and be covered by three separate materials:

1) Carbolic acid

2) A mixture of green food dye, detergent and citronella

3) Charcoal or black dye.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FISA) is charged with overseeing all meat and poultry sold commercially for human consumption. A FISA official in Washington, DC told the Journal that these denaturing procedures are intended only to prevent any resale of the waste as food for human consumption.

Feds powerless

On the question of environmental regulations regarding disposal of slaughterhouse waste, he said ‘the Code of Federal Regulations is silent.’

Federal regs satisfied, Kulana Foods trucks the carcasses to the Hilo landfill. At a disposal fee of $85 per ton, Yagi says, the company pays about $50,000 annually to dump the waste.

Up in Pa’auilo, Hawai’i Big Island Beef slaughters 80 to 100 beef cows per week, generating between 40,000 and 60,000 pounds (20 to 30 tons) of waste each week. It doesn’t use the landfill. Instead, on-site underground retention ponds hold the liquid waste; the carcasses and other solid waste are buried on the property. To accomplish this, workers dig a trench (25 to 30 yards in length and 6 to 10 feet deep), which is gradually filled with the carcasses generated daily. The carcasses are covered in lime, and when the trench is full, with dirt. Then another trench is dug and the process is repeated. Ariel photographs of the property obtained by HIJ show numerous more-or-less adjacent trenches near a ravine; less than 200 yards away is a pali rising several hundred yards above the churning ocean.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has no more jurisdiction over what happens at this point than the USDA.

‘The EPA has no regulatory authority on this; they have turned it over to the state,’ an EPA official told HIJ.

State Dept. of Health isn’t

The state of Hawai’i Department of Health regulates solid waste. The DOH administrative rules governing solid waste require that ‘the disposal of animal carcasses is the responsibility of the land owner or land occupant or both upon whose land the animal carcass is found. On-site disposal of the carcass shall be by immediate burial, covered by at least two feet of compacted earth, or by other methods approved by the director.’

Is it legal to throw cattle carcasses into an open pit for days–or weeks– on end, cover it with lime regularly, then fill in the trench with dirt when it’s full?

‘We do everything we’re supposed to do,’ said Jackie De Luz, David De Luz’s daughter and an officer in the company. Others disagree.

‘I’m not sure that leaving it uncovered for days qualifies as ‘immediate burial’,’ said Todd Nichols of the state Department of Health.

According to the DOH’s Steven Chang, ‘No exemptions been made to the ‘immediate burial and covered by dirt’ [regulation] anywhere on the Big Island.’

‘The practice is at the very minimum unethical, and potentially illegal,’ says Victor Trevino, a former joint owner in the venture. He was once the chief financial officer of Big Island Toyota and David S. De Luz Sr. Enterprises, and was a Pacific Business News ‘Forty under 40’ award recipient in 2006. Trevino suddenly quit working for De Luz in October, 2006. Several weeks later the two parties filed suit against each other in an unrelated matter. De Luz claims Trevino misused company documents and inappropriately gave himself a $200,000 bonus. Trevino denies all charges and is countersuing. The matters are currently in litigation.

YouTube evidence

A video of the open trenches that Trevino shot is posted on YouTube (keywords: Hawaii animal dumping). The 2-minute clip shows bovine mass graves at least 20 feet wide, filled with thousands of cattle bones, rotting carcasses and offal in uncovered trenches. Clouds of flies buzz in the pits and we even see one of the many cats snacking on the beef waste.

Trevino says there are a total of 52 such pits on the property and De Luz buries the waste because it ‘costs too much to take it to the landfill.’ Unquestionably it’s cheaper to dump it near the ocean. If Deluz’s costs were roughly equivalent to Yagi’s, then based on his higher slaughter volume, trucking the waste from Pa’auilo to the dump would likely cost at least $100,000 each year.

Although Hawaii Beef Producers has buried the waste in this fashion since they opened for business two years ago, a more environmentally responsible solution was once considered. In 2006, the company received a $1.3 million legislative appropriation to renovate the Pa’aulio rendering facility and said it would be operational by December of that year (Pacific Business News, 09/22/06). Speaking at the time as an employee of De Luz Enterprises, Trevino told PBN that the company planned to invest $9 million in the facility over the next five years, and would have a third facility running by October, 2007. PBN reported at the time that the company was negotiating with a Seattle-based biodiesel firm to operate this third plant ‘to reprocess the waste products even more to create biodiesel fuel.’

What’s happened since? Not much.

‘We’d still like to do it, but things are very expensive and we ran into various problems,’ said Jackie De Luz.

So for now, about 100 inches of rain falls on the open trenches every year, the water flows into the ocean, and the local cats dine on Big Island beef tartar.