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.
Updated 5-30-2022 8:00 am ET: The location of the IFFA trade fair was corrected from Berlin to Frankfurt.