Can This Chicken Company Solve America’s Food Waste Problem? | Civil Eats

Can This Chicken Company Solve America’s Food Waste Problem?

Do Good Foods sells chickens raised on surplus supermarket food, and they’re hoping to cash in on consumers who want to fight climate change over dinner.

a freshly roasted chicken from do good foods, in theory

“Welcome to how we solve food waste in this country,” said Do Good Foods co-founder and co-CEO Justin Kamine, as he led a tour of the company’s eastern Pennsylvania factory.

Inside, large, green bins were filled with surplus food from 450 supermarkets in the region. Soon, a conveyor belt would move them toward a giant metal claw. As the claw lifted each bin, the lid would swing open. Bruised apples, watermelon rinds, unsold hot dogs, and stale bagels would fall into a chute, initiating the process of turning grocery store waste into chicken feed.

Since the first package of Do Good Chicken hit retail shelves in April, the company estimates it has kept 11 million pounds of food out of landfills—and they’re just getting started. Two additional facilities are in the works—in Fort Wayne, Indiana and Selma, North Carolina—and Kamine said he plans to eventually build one “in every major metropolitan area.”

In September, Compass Group, one of the country’s largest institutional food service companies, announced it would start serving the chicken in cafeterias for businesses that include Google and Condé Nast. And food-world celebrities are also lending their star power to the brand: former White House chef Sam Kass is Do Good’s chief strategy officer and Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio participated in the launch events.

One of the food waste bins that Do Good Foods use to create chicken feed. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

One of the food waste bins that Do Good Foods use to create chicken feed. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

Kamine and his team describe Do Good’s model as the first scaled-up solution to a vast, urgent problem: About 35 percent of food produced in the U.S. is wasted each year, and much of it ends up in landfills, where it emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Despite a 2015 pledge to halve its food waste by 2030, the U.S. has since increased it instead. At the same time, climate experts are now emphasizing the fact that cutting methane emissions is a critical piece of avoiding catastrophic climate outcomes.

And with its plan to capture a portion of the estimated 3 million tons of food waste retailers send to landfills to eventually feed hundreds of millions of chickens each year, Do Good appears poised to make a real dent.

However, an industrial-scale solution to an industrial problem is likely to raise questions among those who believe a better food system requires a deeper transformation. For example, preventing food waste does much more to cut emissions and reduce overall resource use than capturing it, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) confine chickens indoors and can cause air and water pollution that harms people and the environment.

As more companies make big climate promises, Do Good also presents a test case for how consumers will be able to make sense of their claims. Without a third-party life-cycle analysis, numbers that show greenhouse gas emissions reductions are hard—if not impossible—to parse.

“We applaud corporations making real, genuine climate commitments,” said Karen Perry Stillerman, deputy director of the Food and Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), speaking to the growing landscape of “climate-friendly” foods. “But the commitments have to be made with transparency, and then the companies have to meet them.”

From Food Waste to Chicken Feed

Fifteen years before Kamine started talking about the age-old link between food scraps and chickens, Ariane Daguin, the founder and CEO of D’Artagnan Foods, was figuring out how to get carrot peels and scallion trimmings from New York City restaurants to Amish chicken farmers in central Pennsylvania.

“There was nothing creative about it,” she said, referring to the origins of Green Circle Chicken. “It was just remembering how things are done in the country, where nothing is wasted, the chickens are running around on the farm, and you give them everything that comes out of the kitchen.”

D’Artagnan Foods has long provided high-profile chefs in the Northeast with meat from small, family farms that use slower-growing breeds and raise their animals outdoors. About a decade ago, Daguin’s team set up a complicated system that moved buckets filled with food scraps within their existing supply chain, from restaurants to the warehouse to the slaughterhouse and back to the farms, where farmers simply scattered the scraps in the pasture to supplement the birds’ diet. Chefs loved that they could serve chickens fed on their own kitchen scraps, but the system involved too many moving parts, and buckets kept getting lost.

“In the country . . . nothing is wasted, the chickens are running around on the farm, and you give them everything that comes out of the kitchen.”

Two years into the effort, D’Artagnan settled on a simpler approach. A truck loaded up the fruit and vegetable waste left over at one large market in Pennsylvania and brought it to the surrounding farms instead. Today, that system is still going strong, and the company sells about 15,000 Green Circle Chickens from 17 Amish farms each week.

Daguin has never measured how many pounds of scraps her chickens have gobbled up, how many acres of corn and soy were displaced as a result, or whether the overall system has reduced greenhouse gas emissions. She believes implicitly in the closed-loop system and she swears that chickens that eat fruits and vegetables taste better. It’s one of many reasons that although Green Circle Chicken is being produced in the same state as Do Good Foods, any other resemblance stops at the grain silos in the factory parking lot.

Situated in the same industrial park as Metals USA and Future Foam, Do Good’s facility cost $170 million to build. “You’ll notice this is almost like a [human] food manufacturing facility, with stainless steel and the epoxy coated floor,” Kamine said. “And it’s fully automated from start to finish.”

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The exterior of the Do Good Food facility in eastern Pennsylvania. Grain silos in the background hold the feed for distribution to farms. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

The exterior of the Do Good Food facility in eastern Pennsylvania. Grain silos in the background hold the feed for distribution to farms. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

After the food scraps move through the initial chute, they are sorted and assessed for quality along a conveyor belt, ground into small pieces, and then moved into huge, heated tanks that look like stock pots made for hungry giants. In the tank, a massive metal arm stirs the mixture constantly as it cooks, turning it into a nutrient-rich broth. If you’re standing over the tank breathing in the steam, it smells like a brewery.

Eventually, after the excess fats in the mixture are removed via a centrifuge, the nutrient stew is pumped through a system of white pipes until it comes out as flaky sheets that become a powder when you crush them in your hand. The final product will get loaded into the grain silos and then into a tractor trailer. Once it reaches the farms, Kamine says, the growers turn it into pellets and add it to the chickens’ feed as a supplement to their usual corn- and soy-based diet. To a human, the powder tastes like a salty processed snack, or, as Kamine describes it, “like Raisin Bran.”

As the machinery hums along, Do Good employees sit in an elevated command center in front of rows of screens that show video footage of the different steps. In a lab set off the factory floor, others test each batch of feed to make sure the nutrient levels are optimized in each batch.

But Do Good is not just a feed company. It also sells chicken in supermarkets. And although Kamine was eager to show off the innovative technology involved in the operation all the way through to the feed being loaded into the silos outside, once the conversation turned to how the company operates at the farm level, it became harder to get clear answers.

He said the company works with existing chicken producers located in Delaware (a state with one of the most concentrated industrial poultry footprints in the country), but was vague about what the farms looked like. A representative described the grower supply chain as “a network of co-manufacturers” and declined Civil Eats’ requests to visit a farm.

When asked about climate-conscious consumers who might also be concerned about factors like pollution from CAFOs or animal welfare, Kamine pointed to the claims that appear on the product’s labels: natural and cage-free. However, the current U.S. Department of Agriculture standard for “natural” does not apply to farm practices in any way. Cage-free is also meaningless when applied to chickens raised for meat, as cages are only used in egg production, a fact Kamine acknowledged after it was pointed out.

The Potential—and Real—Impact

Overall, UCS’s Stillerman emphasized that for any company making climate claims, transparency is key to gaining consumer trust.

While Do Good is starting out with a climate mission, she’s been tracking larger chicken companies like Tyson that are attempting to clean up their images after decades of causing environmental damage. “They are a case study in corporate sustainability pledges gone wrong,” she said.

In 2018, Tyson pledged that it would shift 2 million acres of the cropland used for its animal feed to “climate-smart” practices by 2020. But by 2021, only 370,000 acres were enrolled in a pilot program, and the deadline was pushed to 2025. It also wasn’t clear what the company meant by “climate-smart practices,” Stillerman said. “Even if you assume that they’re trying to support really good, regenerative practices on farms, our research showed that they have a huge footprint of farm acres. Nine to 10 million acres of corn and soybeans every year is what their supply chain requires.”

But the number of acres required to feed Tyson’s animals also points to a place where Do Good could have a significant positive impact. While the chickens fed food waste still also eat grain, they need a lot less. And Kamine is excited by the chance to free up corn and soy acres, since land use for row crops has significant climate and other environmental impacts. How many fewer acres Do Good chickens require is not a number the company has calculated yet, but there are other numbers that the team shares frequently.

Kamine calculates that if 1 in 5 chickens eaten in the U.S. was produced by Do Good, supermarket food waste would be solved. And he believes that trajectory is possible, with plans to build 50 factories across the country.

Based on the company’s math, for example, in just the first six months of operation, the Pennsylvania factory prevented about 950 metric tons of greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of taking about 400 cars off the road (although the comparison isn’t perfect since methane acts differently in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide). That calculation was made using the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s WARM model, Kamine said, and takes into account variables like the energy it takes to convert produce into feed and transportation emissions within the supply chain.

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Kamine also calculates that if 1 in 5 chickens eaten in the U.S. was produced by Do Good, supermarket food waste would be solved. And he believes that trajectory is possible, with plans to build 50 factories across the country, each of which could process 60,000 tons of waste per year, equal to the 3 million tons that grocery stores currently throw out.

Those same factories would then provide supplemental feed to around 1.62 billion chickens—or about 1 in 5 of the approximately 8 billion consumed by Americans annually. “It goes back to: We need to solve these environmental problems as quickly as possible,” Kamine said.

Do Good Chicken is on sale at an Acme supermarket near the Do Good factory; the supermarket is one of many that also provides food waste to the company, and sells their chicken. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

Do Good Chicken is on sale at an Acme supermarket near the Do Good factory; the supermarket is one of many that also provides food waste to the company, and sells their chicken. (Photo credit: Lisa Held)

There might also be additional benefits. Preventing food waste before it happens eliminates the need for a wide array of resources. But Roni Neff, director of the food system sustainability and public health program at Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future, said that in general, collecting and measuring food waste “can lead to noting that the food exists and therefore sending the signal back” to those producing the waste, leading to efforts to improve prevention. To that end, Kamine said Do Good is sending supermarkets reports that show how much waste they’re regularly sending to the factory.

Of course, it seems to follow that giving supermarkets tools to prevent food waste altogether would ultimately eliminate the need for Do Good’s business at a time when they’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in scaling up. Kamine does not seem worried: While stores might reduce waste, he said, it’s impossible to completely eliminate it, especially in terms of trimmings and scraps. In other words, Do Good doesn’t just take bananas and melons no one purchased, it also takes all the peels and rinds created when store employees make fruit salad for the deli case.

Neff also said that given the urgency around the climate crisis and methane’s immediate impact, any chance to cut emissions at a meaningful scale has real potential, and each individual food system solution can’t be expected to solve every problem.

“That doesn’t mean all the other issues [in chicken production] aren’t important,” she said. “One way of thinking about this is: If right now we have this surplus, we can act on it while also working towards and thinking about broader solutions, but we always have to be weighing benefits, harms, and unintended consequences across all the dimensions.”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Kelly Rogers Victor
    I love the idea of tackling the food waste issue, but what quality of chicken meat is being produced by birds being fed things like scraps of old hotdogs and stale bagels? From a nutritional standpoint, this is worrisome.
  2. Michael McCrady
    If I was a meat eater I wouldn’t hesitate to eat the chickens produced. My only concern is the industrial size of the project. Is the main idea to reduce waste? Or is it a feel good way of being more environmentally conscious? The amount of food waste in this country is remarkable. If our waste can be repurposed and tuned into chicken feed to keep it out of the landfill it is definitely a good thing.

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