The Incredible Edible Egg

Diana Watters

If you had eggs for breakfast, you might not want to read this: Agricultural scientists have come up with a new way to dispose of chicken carcasses. First, the dead birds--beaks, feet, feathers, and all--are ground up. Next, the pureed poultry is mixed with soybean meal, after which the concoction goes into a piece of equipment called an extruder. The mush is pushed through a small hole (if you can picture a watermelon being shoved into a pop bottle, you have the right idea). This creates friction, which generates heat, which in turn cooks the mush. The resulting product is a dry meal that's coarser than flour but softer than grain. This powder--hold on to your napkins--is then fed to chickens.

Agricultural scientists at the University of Missouri spent the last four years coming up with the technology for chicken extrusion, which they and many farmers hope will resolve the agricultural industry's never-ending search for cheaper and more efficient ways to get rid of its dead. Currently, just a handful of farms across the United States are trying extrusion (one is in Iowa, the rest are in the Southeast), but a Minnesota egg producer may soon be added to that list.

Recently, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health issued its first extrusion permit to Golden Oval, a corporate poultry farm in Renville, an hour's drive south of the Twin Cities. The extruder hasn't yet cooked any corpses, but Renville residents are crying foul, saying the new process is ripe for contamination and that the board is more concerned about appeasing big agriculture than it is about human health. Besides, the episode sounds just a little too much like a controversy that sprung up two years ago in this community of 1,300 concerning an experiment that turned pig carcasses into fertilizer.

Traditionally, farmers have burned, buried, and composted dead livestock. But what worked for the smaller operations of yesteryear doesn't work so well for big corporate concerns. The sheer volume of animal carcasses at large farms makes burial and composting next to impossible, and incineration pollutes the air.

By contrast, says Dr. Keith Friendshuh, a staff veterinarian for the state board, extrusion is safe and environmentally sound. "The heat generated is over 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and that far surpasses what is used to pasteurize milk," he says. Because dead chickens are now going into landfills or being burned, Friendshuh maintains that "extrusion is better for the environment."

Exactly, chimes in Dr. Sally Noll, an animal scientist with the University of Minnesota. "This is really just a quality-control procedure," she maintains. Not only does extrusion reuse what would otherwise be waste, it should also keep flocks healthier, she says. "The potential for disease is already there, but this will allow poultry firms to be self-contained." If farms can extrude their own dead chickens, flocks will spend their entire life cycle in one spot, cutting down on the potential for outside contamination.

But Julie Jansen, a Renville resident who protested the pig process and opposes Golden Oval's plans, is not convinced that extrusion is the way to go. "It's really just another name for rendering," she insists. (For those of us with blessedly short memories, rendering is what is thought to have caused Britain's epidemic of mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, when sheep with scrapie--a fatal disease that leaves the brain looking like a piece of Swiss cheese--were ground up and used in cow feed.)

And while chickens and turkeys haven't come down with mad cow or any of the diseases related to it, Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Little Marais-based Pure Food Campaign, says recent research suggests they could be carriers. "There's no conclusive proof that poultry is exempt," says Cummins. "One of the problems in detecting this in chickens is that they either don't live long enough or they don't exhibit symptoms." In addition, Cummins says poultry carry a number of bacteria, including salmonella and E. coli, which are killed only by exposure to high temperatures for extended periods. And in the case of extrusion, cautions Cummins, since a number of chickens are mixed together in one pot, the risk of contamination increases considerably. "It only takes one diseased bird," he says.

Friendshuh insists these problems won't occur. The extruded mash, he says, "has to reach the proper temperature for a long enough time, and you have to take precautions not to recontaminate the product once it's done." However, he doesn't anticipate problems with contamination or undercooked chicken feed because the board will "regulate and inspect" Golden Oval's extrusion process on a regular basis.

Friendshuh defends the board's decision to allow the technique, saying that should Golden Oval fail to operate according to state standards, officials can pull the permit at any time. Although the permits are good for a calendar year, Friendshuh maintains that the board inspects facilities long before they expire.

Which does little to reassure Jansen. For three years she has complained to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency about the stench at five local feedlots. Last week the agency released a report which found excessive levels of hydrogen sulfide at Golden Oval and four other farms. The hazardous gas, which the MPCA suspects is being produced by a manure pit under a barn, can cause respiratory ailments and other problems. If the farm already has environmental problems, Jansen says, how can the state allow it to begin using the largely untried extrusion process. "This is another science experiment that's been foisted on the neighbors," she says. "And as for the refeeding of chickens, I'm sure consumers will find this repulsive."

Such sentiments might doom Golden Oval's plans for extrusion before they even get rolling. CEO Dana Persson says that ever since the company won its permit, it has fielded calls from everyone from animal-rights activists to fried-chicken lovers. "There is a perception problem here," he concedes, adding that the plant has shelved plans to extrude carcasses pending more research into public opinion. For now, Golden Oval intends to use the extruder only on "eggshells and juice," he says. "The economics [of extrusion] works. It's preferable to taking up land, and animal protein is a good source of protein."

But in part because of a past controversy dubbed the "Babe-in-a-blender" incident, Renville residents don't seem reassured. In December of 1995, the animal health board granted Val Ad Co, a large hog operator in the town, a permit to try a new method of carcass disposal. Dead pigs were tossed into a giant blender, liquefied, and poured into the farm's manure lagoons. The manure would then be allowed to "ferment" until Val Ad Co needed fertilizer.

Renville activist Stephanie Henricksen says that although the hog farm stunk worse than usual, neither the board nor Val Ad Co informed the community about the experiment. "I'd been hearing rumors about pig bodies in the lagoons," she says, "and I started asking questions."

In December 1996 the experiment's permit came up for renewal. Henricksen rallied other Renville residents to protest. In addition to odor complaints, residents voiced concerns about the overall safety of the process. Adding raw pigs to manure pools, they contended, was a recipe for disease--especially if the resulting sludge was spread on farmland. Despite these protests, the board granted Val Ad Co a six-month extension. However, in light of the community's vehement opposition, the company quickly abandoned the project.

Friendshuh says unhappy Renville residents should feel free to attend the board's meetings. "We always reserve time for the public to voice their opinions," he says.

Golden Oval, too, says community input is welcome. "We're going to study this for another 30 to 60 days before we make a decision [about carcass extrusion]," says Persson. "We're members of this community, too, and we want to do what's right for our neighbors."

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