Noxious byproduct of mad cow disease haunts France

August 9, 2002 Financial Times (London) by CHLOE GRAHAM and ROBERT GRAHAM 
Hundreds of seagulls gather daily on the roof of a warehouse on an isolated tongue of land in the Seine estuary at Le Havre. The attraction is less the view of the Normandy Bridge, one of the great modern engineering feats in France, than the pungent odour rising from the warehouse on a stiff sea breeze - the sour smell of ageing animal and fowl waste.

The Le Havre site is chilling, and not just because it evokes the atmosphere of a Hitchcock film. Two years ago the animal and bone meal now decaying in the warehouse would have ended up in a diverse range of products, from cat food to stock cubes and lipstick. But in November 2000, as part of precautions to prevent the spread of mad cow disease, the French government banned the commercial use of animal and bone meal produced by waste treatment plants. Since then Le Havre and 28 other storage sites have been steadily filling up.

The sites represent a hidden consequence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) since the scare over mad cow disease spread from Britain in 1996: what to do with unwanted animal matter.

The situation is particularly acute in France which has the biggest animal husbandry industry in Europe. The country produces 10,000 tonnes of animal waste a week, which used to go back into the animal food chain, but has incinerator capacity for only 2,000 tonnes a week.

Pierre Raffin, who manages the Le Havre site for Sita, the waste treatment arm of the multinational environmental services group Suez, says the facility is full. "The hangar received its first shipment in May 2001 and it is now at capacity with 150,000 tonnes."

Other sites are also full or close to it. Agriculture ministry officials admit little storage space remains.

"Everyone thought this was going to be a temporary problem, likely to be resolved at the latest by 2005. Now we can see it is a much bigger problem that will take much longer to tackle," says Mr Raffin.

By 2005, 24 new incinerators, costing Euros 700m (Pounds 450m), are due to come on stream. That is, assuming the authorities accept the plans for them. Until they are up and running France will have to keep finding new storage facilities. And that means an increasingly hostile public has to be persuaded to accept new sites.

When the ban on the use of the animal waste was introduced almost two years ago, the then Socialist government was obliged to requisition grain warehouses and turn to military facilities for storage. This was followed by inviting private groups to tender to manage the storage business on a fee basis.

As a rule the government has sought to store only the "low risk" waste. Priority for incineration has been reserved for "high risk" parts - those most likely to carry the malignant agents - or for herds that have been slaughtered because of a BSE outbreak.

The low risk waste is burned off as energy in French cement plants. A total of 25 plants absorbed close to 450,000 tonnes of the waste last year, for which four cement companies received government pay ments varying between Euros 45 and Euros 60 per tonne. However, environmental groups question whether sufficient precautions are being taken to ensure safe emissions from the burn-off.

Sita moved into the business through its subsidiary Sanifa, seizing an opportunity to build on its industrial and hospital waste treatment technology. As a first step, it bought the Le Havre warehouse which had been used for chemicals storage before switching to becoming a cereals depot.

In the 450-metre-long warehouse, the waste is piled seven metres high under plastic covering.

An elaborate system of computer-operated temperature gauges monitors the stability of this foul-smelling mass, that looks like thick-grained sand. Staff and visitors are obliged to wear protective clothing and masks

The material is composed of blood, bones, tissue and feathers which have been treated, reduced and heated to very high temperatures to make it as safe as possible. However, scientists are not certain how this unstable matter will behave when stored for long periods.

Indeed, the security precautions surrounding the treatment of the waste provide an uncomfortable reminder of just how recently food safety standards have been tightened.

At Le Havre, more than 90 per cent of the waste matter is stored loose; the rest is in bags or bales. The secret is to prevent the matter coming into contact with fresh air as that oxydises it, thereby reducing the calorific content that allows it to burn so well.

For Sita the real interest lies in using the waste to generate energy by the incineration process. Its experts calculate that 100 tonnes of waste will generate nine megawatts of electricity. But there are many European Union regulations to overcome.

Meanwhile, the focus is on finding more efficient means of storage. For now, containers solve many of the problems - they are easier to move, less malodorous and probably safer than warehouse piles.

Additional research by Chloe Graham I)

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