Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood has a particular smell. What is it?
Spend enough time in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood… or anywhere nearby, and you’ll eventually encounter the smell. It’s common knowledge the odor comes from Butchertown’s last remaining meatpacker, but what exactly is it?
It’s a rainy morning outside the meatpacking plant at 1200 Story Avenue. Steam rises from the stacks as workers make their way inside to start their shifts. A smell permeates the air.
Butchertown locals say the odors wafting from the Swift Pork Plant can smell burnt and rancid, like “burning baby dolls,” feces and bleach. But the smell often travels far past Butchertown with residents reporting complaints about plant odors in Phoenix Hill, NuLu, the Highlands, Old Louisville and even across the river in Jeffersonville.
But what is that smell? To find out, LPM News reached out to Swift’s parent company JBS, one of the world’s largest meat processing companies, which earned a net income of more than $20 billion in 2021. Multiple emails and phone calls to JBS over a three-month period were never returned.
So we went to the city’s odor regulators at the Air Pollution Control District. In the process, we learned the pork plant amassed around 500 odor complaints since July of 2019. The company agreed to pay more than $44,000 in fines for violating dozens of regulations designed to minimize odors. As part of that agreement, APCD decided to change citywide odor regulations.
But wait… what’s the smell?
Regulators broke the odors down into a handful of categories. There’s the feces smells, which come from the live hogs and the trucks that take them to slaughter.
Then, there are the bleach smells, which come from equipment designed to scrub the most objectionable odors from the air. And those odors, the ones that cause the most complaints, are from a process called rendering. That’s how they repurpose all of the meat we don’t eat into usable products like pet food and cosmetics.
“So the equipment in that inedible rendering operation includes a blood dryer, a hair hydrolyzer and a continuous cooker; and that’s where they are putting these parts of the pig that aren’t sold for human consumption, apply heat and pressure and break those things down,” APCD industrial permitting manager Matt King said.
In brief, here are the main three smells and what they come from:
- Smell: Bleach | Source: Scrubbers meant to control odor pollution from going into the air.
- Smell: Poop | Source: Pig feces from the trucks that bring live hogs for slaughter.
- Smell: Rancid burning | Source: Rendering inedible pig parts into other products.
APCD says that the majority of the odor complaints they receive are the result of the rendering process. That process is important for two reasons: Economically, it’s a way to get the most financial value out of each animal, but also it ensures that none of that animal goes to waste.
That’s a sentiment shared by local butcher, Aaron Sortman, who runs Red Hog in the Crescent Hill Neighborhood. It’s a custom, farm to table butcher shop.
“I never like to refer to anything as a scrap, because it’s all desirable, it just depends on the way you're able to prepare it and utilize it,” Sortman said.
Sortman said and his colleagues use every bit they can including making their own dog treats from pig skins, rendering fat for lard, and boiling bones to make stock. They make their own sausages and cure deli meats.
“We want to be able to use everything we can with it so that there is a purpose behind the products that we sell,” he said.
JBS is a lot bigger than Red Hog, but in both cases, you might say they use everything but the squeal.