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Neighbors Raise a Stink About Jell-O Factory

Food processing: Odors from the tightly guarded plant betray a little-known fact: Animal rendering is at the heart of gelatin creation.

February 29, 1996|ROBIN ESTRIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WOBURN, Mass. — A few years ago, a lobbyist offered to help state Rep. Carol Donovan visit the big, four-smokestacked factory off Route 93, a few miles north of Boston.

But when Donovan appeared as scheduled, she was told she would not be given a tour. All she saw was the inside of a conference room.

"If there's nothing going on, why are they so protective, and why are they keeping everyone out, and why are they so suspicious?" she asked. "It makes me suspicious of what's going on."

What is going on is not nuclear fission or top-secret weaponry.

What's going on is Jell-O.

For the past 75 years, at the Atlantic Gelatin plant in Woburn, workers have been making the stuff that wobbles, wiggles and jiggles, the stuff of America's Jell-O molds and Jell-O shots.

Here, in a plant that often emits odors--some pleasant, others very unpleasant--they make Jell-O. Just don't ask to see how.

State Rep. Paul Casey, a Democrat who represents the neighboring towns of Winchester and Stoneham, was invited several years ago into a conference room to speak with factory officials--but the small room was as far as he got.

"It was like entering a concentration camp," Casey said.

*

Repeated requests for a plant tour by the Associated Press were refused.

"We generally don't give tours of the plant to anybody, because what goes on in our plants we consider proprietary," said Nancy Daigler, spokeswoman for Kraft Foods. (Atlantic is a division of Kraft, which is a subsidiary of Philip Morris, the food and tobacco conglomerate.)

"We are a food company, and keeping things very sanitary is of utmost importance to us," she said.

Daigler later accused a reporter who tried to visit the factory of trying to "sneak into the plant" behind one of the many trucks that pass through the factory's gates.

The reporter had confronted an 8-foot fence, signs reading "Stop" and "No Trespassing" and a security guard who said to turn around.

Obviously, this factory, with its trim landscaping, American flag blowing in the breeze and sprawling brick building, is not easily penetrable--unless you're bringing in animal parts.

*

Animal rendering is at the heart of the Jell-O manufacturing process. And for years now, some residents of the stable, working- and middle-class communities near the plant have been complaining that Atlantic Gelatin stinks up the neighborhood.

Gelatin is made from the hide trimmings of cows and pigs, not from their horns, hooves or meat.

First, the skins are washed and bathed in hot water to remove the collagen. Once extracted, the collagen is soaked, filtered and purified, converting the collagen to gelatin, said Kraft spokeswoman Cathy Pernu.

The gelatin extract is then evaporated, dried and sent, along with flavored powders, to Dover, Del., and San Leandro, Calif., for packaging.

Oils that are left in the hot-water baths are sold for pharmaceutical and industrial use. Any remaining solids are removed and sold as compost.

As the hides are washed in 70-foot vats, bits of fat, hair and skin come off into the water, said Mary Persky, an environmental analyst with the state Department of Environmental Protection and one of the few outsiders who has seen the inside of the plant.

"The water's dirty and smells like dead animals," she said.

The plant does not emit odors all the time, she said, and when it does, the smell is more likely to be of the fruity variety.

But sometimes, she said, especially when the weather is warm, the water in the vats goes septic, sending a rotting smell through the surrounding hills.

*

Just ask Carolyn Thorne, who lives about a mile from the factory, downwind. Thorne, 53, grew up on Jell-O. But she doesn't eat it anymore.

For the last decade, Thorne has complained too often to count--to Atlantic Gelatin, to the health department, to the DEP--about the odors.

She objects to the sweet smells, but the stink of rendering is worse: "It's like if you leave a piece of fat out in the sun too long."

Then there's a third smell--a deodorant. "But it's as disgusting as the fat smell," she said.

After years of complaints, the DEP issued a 1992 order of compliance that forced Atlantic Gelatin to change some of its operating procedures.

Pernu said the plant, which employs about 270 people, spent "multimillions" to address the problems. "We're doing everything we can to make sure we're a good neighbor," she said.

Things improved for a while, Thorne said, but the smells returned.

"If you have a month or so of odor-free air, you get that false sense of security. And then one night, you'll smell it and you'll say, 'Oh my God, it's back,' " she said.

Persky admitted that the odors are still problematic. But she agreed that Atlantic Gelatin has worked hard to comply with regulations.

"Nothing is ever going to be perfect," she said.

And not everyone is disgruntled. Don Sweeney, who has lived in Woburn for about half of his 82 years, lives just a short walk from the plant. He said he likes the fruity smells that reach his home.

"I think it's like having a deodorizer for the whole neighborhood," he said.

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