This Startup Wants You to Eat Ground-Up Chicken Bones
07 June 2022
A Finnish company says it has found a way to incorporate bone into ground chicken, lowering the production cost and environmental impact of the meat. But will anyone eat it?
We’re living in the Age of Chicken. Geologically speaking, that is. There are about 23 billion chickens alive on Earth at any one time. Gather them all together and their combined mass would exceed that of all other birds on the planet. With more than 66 billion birds killed each year, their fossilised bones may leave behind a record that outlasts human existence. In 2018, a group of scientists argued that the broiler chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) should be considered as much an indicator of the Anthropocene Epoch as those other trappings of modern human existence: plastics, concrete, and the deposits left behind by burning fossil fuels.
And the Gallocene—if that’s what you want to call it—is gathering speed. Fifty years ago, poultry made up about 15 percent of all the world’s meat. Now that fraction has ballooned to more than 36 percent, while the share of beef halved over the same period. Plant-based and cultured meats might be feeding our imaginations, but cheap, industrially farmed chicken meat has captured our dinner plates.
The pursuit of a never-ending supply of low-cost lean protein has turned chickens into meat machines. Today’s chickens have been bred and fed to grow five times fatter than their mid-century ancestors—putting on weight so quickly that their organs can’t keep up and death rates soar if the birds are kept alive much past six weeks. The majority of the world’s chickens are reared in industrial farms, which again drives down costs at the expense of animal welfare.
Now a Finnish startup says it has come up with a new way to squeeze more meat out of a single chicken. All it takes is a little ground-up bone. In a small pilot plant in the Finnish city of Kotka, the founders of SuperGround have figured out how to process chicken bones so they can be incorporated into ground chicken products like nuggets or meatballs. It might sound a little gross, but the startup’s founders point out that using more of the bird lowers the environmental footprint of every pound of meat and drives the cost of it down at a time when chicken prices are soaring.
Here’s how the process works, according to SuperGround chair and cofounder Tuomas Koskinen. A mixture of vegetable protein and chicken bones with some meat attached is heat-shocked and then passed through an extruder to create a bone-vegetable-meat blend that can be mixed with ground chicken meat. “The bone becomes virtually indistinguishable from other components under a microscope, and using a microscope alone the different components cannot be identified,” says Koskinen. The end result is nuggets and other ground chicken products that can incorporate between 5 and 30 percent of the bone-containing mass. Adding any more bone into the mix makes it difficult to extrude through the meat-making machines.
This might not sound particularly appetising, but Koskinen points out that plenty of people enjoy eating bone marrow and that chicken bones are already a key ingredient in stock. In late May, Koskinen and SuperGround founder Santtu Vekkeli took their meat to IFFA—the meat industry’s largest trade fair—in Frankfurt. The response from people who tried their chicken kebabs was positive, Koskinen says. “They find it hard to believe that there’s actual bone in it.”
Of course, what will really excite meat producers is the potential to produce more chicken nuggets for every bird slaughtered. Whether that’ll make economic sense is another question. “Nothing goes to waste in these animal protein industries. Everything has a home,” says Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University. In the EU, chicken bone is often exported for use in pet food or feed for livestock. In August 2021, the EU relaxed rules that previously banned the use of chicken by-products in animal feed, so it is now also possible to incorporate chicken bones into pig feed. (Feeding chicken by-products to cows or back to chickens is still prohibited.)
Koskinen will have to persuade meat manufacturers that it is more profitable to put their chicken bones into human food than to divert them to pet or animal feed. This might not be too difficult, since human food commands a much higher price than animal food. Soaring animal feed prices, in part driven by the war in Ukraine, have pushed poultry prices up by 31 percent compared to this time last year. “If more economic value is created by turning bones into human-edible food, then that will be done,” Koskinen says.
There’s just the small matter of convincing people to eat it. Fast food brands are unlikely to want to be associated with a food product that might put some people off their dinner. In 2003, McDonald’s stopped making its nuggets with a process called mechanically separated meat, in which bones are ground up with chicken meat and then extracted through a sieve. In the EU, any meat made through this process must be labeled as such. Some countries also have specific regulations on mechanically separated meat, but Koskinen thinks his product won’t be put in the same category. “Our process both softens and grinds the bones, and thus the calcium that enters the end product is mostly dissolved and does not contain any hard particles,” he says. Even if their products have to be labeled similarly to mechanically separated meat, this might not be a death knell. “My belief is that consumers do not pay nearly enough attention to the ingredients list of the foods they are actually eating already,” Koskinen says.
What is clear is that demand for cheap chicken is likely to keep rising. “In times when incomes are lower, you can generally see a shift from red meat to chicken,” says Harry Dee, a poultry analyst at the research firm IBISWorld. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations also projects that poultry output will grow by 17 percent over the next decade—higher than any other source of meat. How much of that will be driven by chicken nuggets, however, is far from clear. Lusk points out that ground chicken products make up a relatively small slice of the overall meat market. Filling out ground chicken with bone might make things a little more efficient, but it’s not going to upend how the industry produces meat. And it’s not clear how much of an impact it’ll have on the environment either, since much of that chicken bone wasn’t being wasted in the first place.
Koskinen, however, is confident that the first products containing his blend of bone and chicken meat will reach consumers in 2023. “The interest within the meat industry has without any exaggeration exceeded all of our expectations,” he says. At the moment, SuperGround is only making small batches of its chicken—20 or 40 pounds at a time—but its production facility has the ability to make more than 400,000 pounds of the mass every year. Now it just needs to find enough people to eat it.
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Also published on wired.com