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Feed now fuels French industry

Amid a 'mad cow' scare, factories find a novel way to dispose of suspect animal byproducts.

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Roaring and grinding as it rotates, the enormous steel cylinder that spans the courtyard of the cement factory here throws off a shock of heat that hits you 20 feet away.

Inside, a jet of flame burning at more than 3,500 degrees F., is turning limestone and clay into cement. At the same time, it is helping to solve one of the problems that the spread of so-called "mad cow" disease has brought to France; for the flame is fed not just by the traditional fuel, coke (a form of coal). At Saint-Pierre La Cour, engineers have modified their oven so that it can burn meat-and-bone meal, and thus destroy what scientists say is the most likely carrier of the disease.

France is currently caught up in a public panic over food safety, strongly resembling the "mad cow" crisis that struck Britain in the mid-1990s. At least 86 people there have died of the human form of the disease, which medical experts suspect is contracted by eating infected beef. In France, there are two confirmed cases so far.

As beef sales plummeted, the French government last week banned the use of the meal in all animal feed. The move was widely welcomed, but it posed a question: What to do with the 910,000 tons of meat-and-bone meal that French abattoirs churn out each year?

Burn it, is the short answer. And where better to burn it than in cement factories, which have been trying out alternatives to expensive fossil fuels for years?

"We can burn old tires, sump oil, solvents, car seats, chopped up reject skis, all kinds of stuff," says Renaud Lambert, general manager of the French Cement Industry Association. "Twenty-seven percent of our fuel is industrial waste."

"Meat-and-bone meal does not make very good fuel, but it's a fuel," adds Benoit Kessler, quality and environmental manager at the cement factory here, owned by the international giant Lafarge.

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