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."

Urban Hens promotes chicken poop for kids’ gardens in Colorado

A public health student at Kansas State passed along this story from about Urban Hens, a Boulder, Colorado-based group that is working with the Children, Youth and Environments Center for Research Design at CU and a private grant to supposedly help teach sustainability to children by placing chickens near neighborhood and school gardens.

Wynn Martens, the co-founder of Urban Hens, said,

"How can you be truly sustaining and that is by reusing the waste in any system and keeping it inside the system instead of continuing to consume and throw it off. People become interested for different reasons. Some people are concerned with the humane treatment of the chickens. Other people are interested in the nutritional value. Other people really are interested in the educational component, so we want to support all those."

The children go to the Blossom Pre-School across the alley from Shawnee Gardens. Their curriculum will include responsibilities such as feeding and partly taking care of the chickens. Many of their lunch and dinner scraps will go to the chickens. The chickens’ waste meanwhile will help fertilize the Shawnee Gardens garden. That garden’s products will be eaten by both parties as will the eggs the chickens lay.

Wow. I thought American maternity leave policies were sorta barbaric – six weeks versus a year in Canada – but to make pre-schoolers clean up chicken shit, compost it and then make them eat the food with chicken poop. Hey, maybe I got it wrong, but there is nothing mentioned about microbial food safety in this situation, no details in the story or on the websites as to what constitutes proper composting.

Food porn over food safety. It’ll be a public health person who gets to clean up the mess.