The strict diets of Danish chickens

While Copenhagen restaurateurs and small local farmers are trying to find new and inventive ways to create sustainable gastronomy, they are thwarted by strict EU regulations designed to keep animal diseases at bay

Last December, two employees from the Ministry of Environment and Food (Fødevarestyrelsen) walked into renowned restaurant BÆST in Nørrebro and summarily accused them and the Mirabelle bakery next door of running an illegal feed operation.

Their crime? Providing organic bread and vegetable scraps to the chickens that lay the eggs they serve.

Fødevarestyrelsen was tipped off by an interview two days earlier on the radio station P1 during a programme about successful circular economies in the Copenhagen area. One interviewee was Johanne Schimming, owner of the chicken farm Hegnsholt Hønseri, who proudly shared the details of her business model.

“It all started when I began delivering eggs to Puglisi’s restaurant. It was then we decided that when I delivered the eggs, I would take back bread and vegetable scraps back to the chickens. From then on I would inform other restaurants that wanted to buy my eggs that this would be a part of the deal,” she explains.

It was a good example a self-sustaining circular economy, which saved half a ton of food waste every week while raising healthier chickens that laid better-tasting eggs.

The very same day that Fødevarestyrelsen knocked on BÆST’s door and shut down the operation the Danish government launched a marketing campaign called Fødevarefortællingen (The Food Story). Under the slogan “Finding a better way – the Danish way”, the government claims that its ambition is to “point the development of agriculture and the world in a better direction by producing food and food solutions with a focus on sustainability and resource efficiency”.

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It also boasts of the Copenhagen restaurant scene and new Nordic celebrity chefs “who have a nearly political ambition to use gastronomy as a way to get the world to eat more sustainably”.

Christian Puglisi is one of these celebrity chefs. Two-time winner of the world’s most sustainable restaurant, he also happens to be the founder of BÆST and Mirabelle. Baffled, Puglisi wrote an open letter to Esben Lunde Larsen, Minister for Environment and Food, in which he pointed out the apparent contradiction.

“We agree that there is an urgent need for an industry-wide shift in focus. Both, as you write in ‘The Food Story’, in order to work for a better world, but also in a more practical way to remove obstacles so we can move into the future. Real change, however, happens via a new mindset, not by spending our time and resources on wishful thinking. And it is clear that when you get a skilled storyteller to create your narrative, there is a risk that the words are more palatable than the substance.”

The kitchens of Bæst restaurant, which used to supply its food waste for the chickens at Hegnsholt Hønseri. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Copenhagen’s Lord Mayor Frank Jensen agreed that the move seemed absurd and criticised the minister in an open letter of his own.

“It is just more proof that when the government claims it has ‘green intentions’, it has no basis in reality. These are empty words. It just doesn’t add up when a minister launches strategies with catchy names in order to create growth in agricultural districts while at the same time, on an everyday logistical level, preventing the countryside and city from cooperating to create sublime, locally produced food,” writes Jensen.

“It is absurd. All in all, we consume over 9,000 tons of organic produce a year in the kitchens of Copenhagen municipality. And it is crazy if we can’t – of course under 100 percent appropriate kitchen conditions – recycle vegetables and bread scraps as animal feed and create direct links between producers and kitchens.”

Tough rules for small operations
BÆST’s cooperation with Hegnsholt Hønseri is only the latest in a row of setbacks Puglisi has faced in his ambition to run a sustainable restaurant. Last summer, he decided to keep a small herd of jersey cows at the farm in Lejre where they grow vegetables for their kitchens in Copenhagen. The plan was to use the milk to make their own fresh cheeses at BÆST, a decision he feels was decisive for their nomination as one of the best pizzerias in the world last February.

But Puglisi says it was a difficult ambition to fulfil, as the laws are designed with large-scale farms in mind, rather than local, small-scale and circular economies.

“The problem is that everything is based on the assumption that things need to be bigger, faster and more economical, as well as readily exportable,” Puglisi told The Murmur.

“This development in agriculture means that food security becomes much riskier, so more control and more regulation is needed. For smaller, local systems this is not an issue. If you have a circular approach, you cannot cheat, you cannot compromise on safety and quality, because you only end up cheating yourself. For others, the only issue is to maximise profits.”

After Puglisi published his open letter, food minister Esben Lunde Larsen visited him at his restaurant. They agreed that, for the moment, the only solution would be to register BÆST as an animal feed operation, which involves strictly separating the production of food in the restaurant – for example meat, dairy and vegetables

While Puglisi acknowledges this approach could work for BÆST, which already separates production, smaller restaurants might not have the resources to do the same.

“We can do this, separate the handling of meat from the handling of dairy and vegetables, because we are very well equipped. It is strange that this strict separation is not necessary when preparing food for human consumption, but it is absolute when it comes to preparing feed for chickens. “

No scraps allowed
Even if the government wanted to change the law to allow restaurant waste in animal feed, it is prevented from doing so by an EU ban from 2002. The law was put in place after several outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (commonly known as mad cow disease) and a costly bout of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK in 2001 that was traced back to contaminated kitchen scraps of animal remains being used as feed.

Anders Dalsgaard, professor of veterinary public health at Copenhagen University, explains that there are good reasons for the ban on using waste as animal feed.

“The reasons for the EU rules are very understandable. Organic waste can potentially be a huge risk to our agricultural industry if there is a chance that any animal tissue at all could be present. Even when using it as compost or fertilizer, as we do now, there are many rules and regulations that have to be followed. The waste must be treated in order to minimise the potential for disease. To use it as animal feed is an entirely different story, where the risks are much greater.”

So before a restaurant can even think about using its vegetable waste as animal feed, it needs to take a number of precautions. According to Dalsgaard, this would at a minimum require restaurants to prepare its meat and vegetables in completely separate areas. There must be also regulations in place that require documentation of the origin of the products used in the kitchen.

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“The outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK likely came from imported meat. If there is going to be any chance of using waste from kitchens, it must be from a restaurant that is very particular about its produce and uses locally sourced meat. Otherwise, there is too great a risk that we could introduce new disease strains into the Danish agricultural industry. If just one case of a serious disease crops up in our pigs, for example, it could bring our pork export industry to its knees in an instant and would cost Denmark a fortune.”

Despite these requirements, Dalsgaard argues that it would be possible to establish a safe and practical solution.

“Organic waste has a lot of value, and if the right treatment processes can be established, there is a lot of potential use for it. This is also an issue of corporate social responsibility.”

Johanne Schimming acknowledges that current regulations were implemented for good reason, but that there could be some scope for more flexible enforcement.

“There is also the question of how the Danish authorities choose to interpret the EU law. They choose to interpret the law in a way that is much harsher than is strictly necessary, and this makes it that much harder for us to contend with,” she says.

The kitchens of Bæst restaurant, which used to supply its food waste for the chickens at Hegnsholt Hønseri. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

“I think that while there is a lot of political support, there is a strong industry lobby that is very anxious to maintain food safety when it comes to industrial farming and exports. Loosening up the rules for someone like me is a risk they don’t want to take. Therefore, they choose to be stricter than is necessary. But, for us, these rules are often too much. While there might be theoretical risks when these rules are not followed on a large scale, with a circular system like ours there is no real risk in practice,” she says, adding that the rules are often unreasonable.

“For example, private people who happen to have a chickens in their back yard are also not allowed to give it food from their kitchens. I just don’t think this makes any sense in practice. I think in those instances there must be a lot of people unwittingly breaking the law.”

Where there’s swill, there’s a way
Food waste has been used as animal feed throughout the ages, especially as pig feed, known as swill. While it was banned by the EU in 1997, countries such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea doubled down on swill as animal feed in order to reduce the environmental impact of meat production.

These countries faced similar disease outbreaks caused by the practice, but instead of simply banning swill, they introduced a tightly-regulated, centralised system to safely collect food waste. The swill is collected, inspected and pasteurised (heated to kill microbes) before use by registered ‘ecofeed’ manufacturers. The pork from pigs fed with this swill is labelled and sold at a premium, as the public has a favourable view of this production method.

A 2015 study from the University of Cambridge reported that if the EU implemented a similar system, it would save almost 1.8 million hectares of soy and grain production used to feed pigs. The study also suggests that farmers would end up spending less on animal feed.

But despite the benefits that could accrue from lifting the EU ban on kitchen scraps as animal feed, there is simply not enough support from farmers, the public and policy makers.

Lack of political support
Although EU laws are responsible for disrupting his sustainability ambitions, Puglisi argues that the EU itself doesn’t shoulder all the blame.

“I think that the problem in this context arises when farming and innovation are focused solely on exports. This means the focus is on technology and efficiency, faster production, reducing costs, and how to keep large facilities clean. Innovation on a smaller level is rarely considered.”

Christian Puglisi. Photo: P. A. Jorgensen

The result is that smaller farmers and producers are not only neglected by policy makers, they are suffocated by regulations designed for large-scale agriculture.

“The regulations are forced upon us because of this. If we look at the recent example of the threat of bird flu, all fowl had to be kept indoors. This applied to both private individuals and huge farms, and is still the rule in Denmark, even though the rest of Europe has eased up on this precaution. The problem is that this restriction is supposed to protect huge and potentially vulnerable chicken farms, but it absolutely crushes small organic and free-range chicken farming since they are not allowed to have their chickens outside. The only interest is in keeping the big industry afloat.”

As long as these regulations exist, it will be hard to introduce the type of sustainable and circular economy that Puglisi and Schimming aspire to – but Schimming is hopeful that change is not far off.

“There is currently just too much waste in our society so we need to become smarter about how we use our resources. We might have been too premature this time, but me and Christian [Puglisi] are going to continue pushing for change, and I am certain that we are going to get there eventually,” she says.

But for now, Schimming’s chickens must be content to eat the feed the EU allows them – nothing but dry grain. M


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By Johanna Sveinsdottir

Johanna Sveinsdottir Editorial intern. Originally from Iceland, Johanna has a masters in English with a focus on linguistics and language psychology.

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