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Is it true gelatin is made from decaying animal hides?

Dear Cecil:

How is gelatin made?

A friend of mine said he visited a "gelatin factory" where he saw cow skins piled to the ceiling. The skins are left to putrefy or "cure" for about a month, during which time they're overrun by rats, mice, and insects. The stench, my friend said, is unforgettable.

After the hides are ripe, a tractor pushes them into a vat of acid that disintegrates the cow hairs, skin, cartilage, rat excrement, etc., into a nice, tasty, homogenized gel.

Can this be true? I've been fortunate enough not to have had gelatin since childhood but there are a lot of people out there trying to strengthen their nails.

Victor D.

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Victor, what’s the problem here? We’re talking about a process that is the very epitome of the waste-not-want-not postindustrial ethic, whose only drawback is that it happens to be a little disgusting.

Setting aside a few gratuitous details, notably the bit about the rats, mice, and insects, your description of the gelatin-making process is reasonably close to the mark. But instead of being grossed out, you should thank God you live in a country where they’ve learned to harness even the humblest forms of protein for the good of … well, if not all mankind, at least the shareholders of General Foods.

Cowhides are used for gelatin because they contain a semi-nutritious substance called collagen. They don’t molder in the open air, but instead are immersed for a month in vats of lime, then dumped in acid, washed in water, and finally cooked.

Pig hides get an expedited version of this process, but the result is the same, namely a uniform proteinaceous goo. The gelatin is then filtered, dried, and shipped off for manufacture into Jell-O, marshmallows, candy, and what have you.

A considerable body of off-the-wall legend surrounds the gelatin biz. For example, I’ve been told that the factory where they make the gelatin for Jell-O is the only General Foods plant off-limits to the public, owing to the repulsiveness of what goes on inside.

As a matter of fact, the plant, which is located just outside Boston, isn’t open to the public, but then neither are a number of other General Foods sites. The place is inspected periodically by the feds and is said to be pretty sanitary.

As for the smell … well, the place does have a certain fragrance, the company admits. A spokesman loyally describes it as “not bad,” which I suppose could mean “not bad compared to a Bolivian skunk ranch,” but who knows. You want to make a midnight raid and check for yourself, be my guest.

Cecil Adams

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