Campbell, KFC won’t buy spent hens, but US school lunch program will

Colonel Sanders and KFC won’t buy them.

Campbell Soup stopped using them more than a decade ago because of "quality considerations."

Yet as reported in today’s USA Today, the U.S. National School Lunch Program is an awesome outlet for egg producers struggling to find a market for 100 million egg-laying hens culled each year.

From 2001 through the first half of 2009, USA TODAY found, the government spent more than $145 million on spent-hen meat for schools — a total of more than 77 million pounds served in chicken patties and salads. Since 2007, 13.6 million pounds were purchased.

Because the hens are usually restricted to tiny cages, they often suffer from osteoporosis and have especially brittle bones that easily splinter. When schools reported bones in the chicken, the government stopped purchases for school meals in April 2003. After new provisions aimed at preventing bone splinters — and lobbying by the trade group, United Egg Producers — purchases resumed that July.

Besides the bones issue, some scientists believe spent-hen meat is more likely to carry salmonella, which can be especially dangerous for children. A 2002 study by Washington State University’s Avian Health and Food Safety Laboratory found that spent-hen carcasses were four times more likely than broilers to be contaminated with salmonella. The spent hens in the study were from a single plant, so the results offer no proof that similar problems occur on a broader scale. …

Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture say spent-hen meat is safe and nutritious. "Mature hens must comply with the same safety standards as any other chicken processed and sold to consumers," says Rayne Pegg, head of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Still, the USDA is buying fewer spent hens today. In 2006, it purchased 30% of all spent hens processed nationwide; now, it buys less than 10%.

Craig Brooks, who oversees food distribution at the South Carolina education department, isn’t sorry to see fewer spent hens.

"The taste just didn’t go over."