Will Europe change its aquafeed protein after EU feather meal decision?

Poultry groups will be watching with interest how feed businesses in Europe respond to the European Union’s decision that feather meal can be used in feeds for fish. Until now, a ban on using any type of so-called processed animal protein has been in place since 2000, triggered by the “Mad Cow Disease” crisis of bovine spongiform encephalopathy that was deemed to be transmissible through in-feed materials of animal origin.

Officially, the ban on including these PAP proteins in fish feed was lifted at the beginning of June 2013, and it refers to ingredients recovered from the processing of non-ruminants — meaning poultry and pigs. Ruminant material remains outlawed.

Most European feeds for aquaculture are aimed at farmed salmon. The manufacturers could save some ingredient costs by replacing part of the fishmeal in the formulation with cheaper feather meal, with the additional benefit of reducing their usage of the meal and oil derived from fish. Although sustainable sources of these materials have been developed, the limitations in the global supply from capture fishing continue to make their use a sensitive issue politically. 

Despite this, the feed companies in Europe have stayed reticent about making the change. In fact, they could have started to do it years ago, because the EU’s action against feather meal was never an outright prohibition. In theory, the use of hydrolyzed feather meal in European Union feeds was permitted, but at first there was a requirement that the particles in the meal must not exceed a certain rather low limit and later this became an insistence that only peptide products were allowed.

It is tempting to think that fishmeal was preferred over feather meal as the main protein fed to fish, simply for technical reasons. While enzyme treatment of hydrolyzed feathers overcame the problems of digestibility attributed to steam-treated meal, there were still the doubts over the amino acid profile of feather-meals and especially their perceived shortfalls of lysine and methionine.

Of course, the alternative feeds could have been formulated to be every bit as good. However, the real cause of the manufacturers’ reluctance is less easily addressed. It lies in the attitude of Europe’s food retailers. Concerned about the possibility of a negative consumer reaction if the switch in proteins fed to their fish was not described carefully, the retail stores generally have taken the safe line of ruling feather meal out and fishmeal in.

Few people expect this situation to change overnight. No doubt the retailers will review their situation eventually, but they will do so only slowly and after receiving firm guarantees about food safety as well as sustainability. Until then, it seems that poultry processing plants must accept that they are unlikely to experience a sudden big leap in their sales of feather meal — at least, not to the makers of Europe’s fish feeds.