Water is a critical necessity in producing a safe and wholesome source of protein for consumers. While water is used in virtually every phase of harvesting live animals and multiple steps during further processing operations, the great majority of this water is not consumed. Rather, it is recycled and reused after it has been treated. 

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 is the mechanism that allows meat and poultry processing plants to discharge treated process wastewater from their facilities. National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permit System (NPDES) permits issued under the authority of the CWA establishes, among other things, limits on what you can discharge. Although constituents in meat and poultry processing effluent can vary, common pollutants regulated through the issuance of NPDES permits include biochemical oxygen demand, total suspended solids, oil and grease, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Meat and poultry processing facilities that obtain and adhere to the stipulations outlined in their NPDES permits are given the authority to directly discharge their treated wastewater to the environment.

Meat and poultry processing facilities that do not operate full wastewater treatment plants are given the authority to discharge their process wastewater to publicly owned or municipal wastewater treatment works (POTWs) for further treatment. The level of pretreatment that occurs at the meat and poultry plants vary and depend on local sewer ordinances or guidelines set by the local municipality.

In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it will initiate a new rulemaking to revise national meat and poultry wastewater discharge standards for nitrogen and phosphorus for the meat and poultry industry. EPA’s intention is to incorporate the revised effluent limitation guidelines (ELGs) into NPDES permits or into effluent pretreatment requirements for those meat and poultry plants that pretreat wastewater and discharge to POTWs.

The driver for EPA’s recent decision to revise the national discharge standards for nitrogen and phosphorus hinges on continued nutrient impairment of surface waters. EPA also expressed concern over the fact that the current ELG’s do not apply to facilities that discharge to POTWs, which they indicate is roughly 6,700 facilities. 

Following EPA’s announcement of its decision to revise the ELGs, EPA also announced its intention to forward Information Collection Requests (ICR). Response to the ICR surveys is mandatory and will be forwarded to a subset of industry facilities to gather detailed information pertaining to facility processing operations, wastewater treatment facility equipment, basis for current effluent limitations, wastewater treatment characteristics, and more. Additional activities will likely include EPA site visits, on-site data collection, and an economic analysis of best achievable technology.

The U.S. Poultry & Egg Association and other trade associations are currently engaged with EPA to ensure the agency has an accurate understanding of industry’s footprint and the professional effort that goes into treating the process wastewater it generates. In a fashion similar to 2004, when EPA last revised ELGs for meat and poultry, this support will continue throughout the process. 

For more information, contact Paul Bredwell, Executive Vice President of Regulatory Programs, at