In Waste Grease Industry, Rustlers Skim the Fat
By Geoffrey Leavenworth
Houston--Waste grease, the cooking fat that ends up neither in your nor on you, is the object of a crime wave that is costing restaurateurs and renderers millions of dollars a year.
The thick, yellow semi-liquid is the center of a sizable industry. Some 2.5 billion pounds of grease were processed last year for use as a cattle and poultry feed supplement, with prices at about 12 cents a pound. Now prosperity has brought trouble in the form of grease rustlers.
Last month a group of 40 grease renderers, restaurateurs, and law enforcement officials from all over Texas met in Houston to devise ways of fighting this new crime. "Waste grease was never taken seriously until it started disappearing," said Robert J. Werner, executive assistant of the Chicago-based National Renderers Association.
Reports of waste grease thefts have occurred throughout the nation. According to Ed. W. Nabakowski, president of Tampa Soap and Chemical Corporation in Florida, his company alone has been losing 25,000 pounds a week.
The development that led to the boom in waste grease--and its recent allure for bandits--began two decades ago with the discovery that adding stabilized feeding fats to animal diets caused vivid weight increases. Such fats today make up 7 percent of what is fed to turkeys, for example. And processed waste grease is a major source of these fats.
The price of waste grease rose from 3 cents a pound in the late 1940s to 7 cents a decade later to as high as 20 cents during the meat shortage of 1974, when grease was in short supply.
While demand was building, the available supplies of waste grease were fairly limited--until the 1970s. The growth of the fast food industry, with all its fried chicken and french fries, has led to a huge increase in the production of waste grease. And the stricter environmental controls that followed (outlawing disposal of the grease through sewer systems, for example) have caused restaurateurs to look for new ways to dispose of it.
Given the demand, renderers were pleased to pay for the stuff. The restaurateurs would deposit their waste grease in 55-gallon containers out back. The renderers would send their trucks to make regular pickups and pay the going "street rate," now about 6 cents a pound.
Selling the waste grease was not a huge item in a restaurant's budget, but it was not trivial, either. C. William Huttu, manager of the Houston area (38 outlets) of the Kentucky Fried Chicken National Corporation, said that a typical stores produces about 12,000 pounds of waste grease a year, which means $720 from the rendering company.
Another operator of fried chicken and hamburger establishments in central Texas said: "Waste grease was worth $9,500 to our company last year, but a manager has a lot of other things to worry about besides protecting his used shortening. We ought to take it more seriously, though, because you've got to sell an awful lot of chicken to make $9,500 profit."
Most rendering firms do at least part of their own collecting of waste grease, but industry officials estimate that about half is done by freelance drivers, who in turn resell to the renderers. A barrel full of grease weighs more than 400 pounds and will bring the restaurateur about $24 at current prices. The part-time grease hauler will get about $6 for making the delivery. After processing, which causes about a 20 percent weight loss, a barrel of grease is worth about $40 on today's market.
The grease rustlers are moving in on the freelance pickup trade. Not only do they clear $30 on the waste grease they steal, but they are paid an extra $5 or $10 for the barrel. Of course the thieves must find a renderer willing to buy "hot" grease, but they seem to have little difficulty doing that.
Grease barrels left outside a restaurant are easy targets for stealing. The rustlers simply wait until the early morning hours when the restaurants are closed and then drop by with a truck, probably equipped with a hydraulic lift. Law-abiding renderers have tried a variety of security measures to protect the grease and the barrel, which they provide the restaurant. Ernest Allison of Texas By-Products Inc., San Antonio, constructed steel cases accommodating two barrels each and installed a lock on each case. But thieves made off with the whole thing--barrels, case, and lock--for a total lift of 1,000 pounds.
Law enforcement officials generally have been less than excited about grease thefts. "The police here consider it too minor to bother with," said Mr. Nabakowski of Tampa. He hired private investigators to stalk the thieves, and they gave him information leading to the discovery of 30 missing barrels inside a rental truck. The police were informed, and charges were brought. But a judge threw out the case, ruling that the sleuthing had amounted to an illegal search.
John Gagliardi, general manager of the Milwaukee Tallow Company (it's slogan is "The Fat People"), has taken ad in Wisconsin restaurant magazines, offering to pay legal fees and expenses to restaurant owners who prosecute grease thieves. He acted after the recent addition of 60 new grease pickup accounts had failed to increase his total grease volume.
At the Houston conference, a representative of the sheriff's office acknowledged that, "until I got a memo this morning instructing me to appear at this grease meeting, I had no idea the theft problem existed." Later a lieutenant of the Houston police department winced when a renderer told of an instance in which policemen had unknowingly assisted a grease rustler by illuminating his work area with the squad car spotlight.
Legislative and regulatory remedies have been slow in coming. "Grease rendering is a wide open business," said Mr. Werner of the National Renderers Association. "Most states only require renderers to be licensed. Grease haulers are often totally unregulated." In Texas, where both renderers and haulers are licensed, an effort was made to elevate grease theft to the status of a felony, but the bill never got out of the legislative committee.
Meanwhile, the waste-grease industry is flourishing. About half of the processed grease is shipped abroad, where large amounts are used to make soap--a market that, in the United States, has been preempted by synthetic detergents--and as animal feed supplement. Harold A. Peeler, vice president of Jacob Stern & Sons in Philadelphia, says his company exports waste grease to Europe, Latin America, South Africa, and the Far East.
The price of grease tends to rise and fall with the demand for it as a feed supplement. Thus when corn, a high-energy feed, is plentiful and cheap, the price of grease weakens.
As the Houston gathering came to an end, there seemed to be no obvious solution to the grease theft problem. One renderer said some operators were beginning to carry guns to protect their barrels.
December 4, 1977