By Michael E. Miller
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It takes a lot of salt to make shit edible. Chicken shit, that is. Turns out that while chickens and cows aren't the fussiest of diners, neither of them will eat feces without a solid dose of sodium — plus a mess of molasses. It still can't be pleasurable, but at some point (on average three to five days), with no better options on the horizon, both animals will succumb to hunger, swallow their pride, and lap up the poop.
Animal rights activists have been crowing for years about the stupefying abuses that livestock must endure, so this one indignity may mount only a modicum of concern; it almost sounds funny in an absurdist way. But as you learn more about the consequences of dining on chicken and burgers culled from these crap-fed creatures, the news just might wipe that shit-eating grin right off your face.
Dr. Robert Ben Mitchell, dressed in a denim shirt, blue cargo pants, and sensible shoes, is standing at the intersection of NE 146th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. A bandanna over his head makes him appear as if he's affecting a bohemian look, but the ever-cautious doctor is merely protecting his mostly bald head from the sunlight; conversely, expressive blue eyes that dominate the Everyman face below are left unshaded. "I'm never going to be on the cover of GQ," he says as a self-deprecating description, "but people don't throw up when they see me."
Mitchell generally speaks seriously and articulately, in a measured tone, but occasionally he'll blurt out a goofy, mischievous laugh that startles by way of contrast. These outbursts expose a gap in his front teeth, causing his countenance to resemble a school kid who has just pulled off a prank. The message on a half-sandwich board hanging from his neck, though, is no joke: BAN CHICKEN FECES IN COW FEED. SEE SOYLENT BROWN ON WWW.YOUTUBE.COM.
The URL references a video he has made on the subject. Its title is a take-off on the 1973 futuristic thriller Soylent Green — in which Charlton Heston alerts an unsuspecting populace that the eponymous food they've been mindlessly feasting upon is ... (spoiler alert) ... "People!" Like its progenitor, Soylent Brown also delves into a deranged diet, but of a different sort: Chickens and cows that end up on our dinner plates are being fed manure, and this might be as bad for us as it is for them.
While disquieting information struts across the screen, Mitchell sings reworked lyrics to the tune of Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man:
Now the greed and perversion
Have gotten so sick
That they're feeding the cows on
Salted chicken shit.
Something is going on,
But you don't want to know what it is,
Do you, Mister Jones?
"Things work in a natural cycle," explains Mitchell. "There's a reason animals poop on the ground — so it can break down in the earth and provide nutrition to plants, which in turn provide nutrition to animals. When you start recycling the shit directly into the animal, it causes all sorts of problems."
His hands mimic the cycles he speaks of, the level voice becoming more animated. "There are so many different diseases transmitted by the fecal-oral route, and we're only putting one animal between us and the feces. What if bird flu breaks out? It will have a very quick route to get back into human beings, which could lead to a huge disaster down the road."
Mitchell stumbled upon the issue serendipitously. "I was watching a movie called Kill Me Later," he recalls, "and at the end they scrolled these words on the screen about what happened to the characters.... It said that one of them went to Mexico and became a millionaire by figuring out how to feed chicken feces to cows by adding salt. I thought that was such a bizarre thing to put in — it had nothing to do with the story. So just for a fluke I Googled it, and all this real stuff popped up."
Real stuff like a 1984 "manual" put out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations called Feed from Animal Wastes, which details precisely how to process manure into dinner for farm animals. "This is the actual recipe book," beams Mitchell, holding aloft the 214-page publication as if it were the Holy Grail. "Martha Stewart gone mad."
It is indeed Martha-esque, the way just a few simple ingredients can be turned into 171 nifty serving ideas. Surprise your bovines with a scrumptious tropical blend of chicken feces and pineapple cannery run-off! Gastronomic flourishes notwithstanding, the cookbook concedes,"Animal wastes may not be equal in all ways to the feeds they replace."
There is likewise a glut of current evidence to suggest Mitchell is not full of you know what.
A 1998 Food and Drug Administration report titled The Use of Recycled Animal Waste in Animal Feed states, "Animal wastes have been deliberately incorporated into animal diets for their nutrient properties" for 40 years as a "viable alternative to ... landfill." The World Health Organization estimates nearly 10 million metric tons of slaughterhouse sewerage are fed to livestock every year. (Europe followed WHO's recommendations and in 2001 outlawed the feeding of all slaughterhouse and animal waste to livestock.)