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.
Less costly and cleaner, too
Located in northwestern France, near the heart of the country's cattle industry, Saint-Pierre La Cour was the first cement factory to adapt its oven burner to run off animal waste. Alongside the pipe that blows coke dust into the 30-foot flame runs a smaller tube carrying meat-and-bone meal. It now meets 12 percent of the factory's fuel needs.
For Lafarge, it is pure profit: Instead of having to pay for coke imported from America, they are paid by the French government to burn the waste. For this factory, that represents a savings of $1.3 million a year. And the quality of the cement, says Mr. Kessler, is in no way affected.
The government, meanwhile, is getting rid of an awkward environmental problem at less than half the price charged by commercial incinerators, with no ecological damage. Tests found that nothing whatever is left of organic material when it is burned at 3,500 degrees, which means no smoke, no smells, no pollution and - an added benefit - no greenhouse gases.
Mr. Kessler, more accustomed to criticism over dust than to praise from environmentalists, is delighted. "This is a chance for us to present a new image, helping to solve a major problem," he points out.
Fourteen French cement factories are currently equipped to burn animal waste. Last year they consumed nearly 220,000 tons, and the industry as a whole could burn 495,000 tons next year, according to the manufacturers association.
That will still leave a lot to be stored, or burned in some other fashion. In Britain, where all cattle older than 30 months are automatically slaughtered as part of the government's battle against the disease - 4.5 million of them since 1996 - three incinerators generate electricity by burning meat-and-bone meal. But no such facilities exist yet in France.
France has banned the use of meat-and-bone meal in cattle feed since 1990, four years after the first outbreak of "mad cow" disease in Europe. But the increasing number of cases now being diagnosed in French herds - 100 so far this year - lead scientists to think that farmers illegally mixed meat-and-bone meal designed for poultry and fish into cattle fodder, because it was cheaper.
The total ban on meat-and-bone meal in all animal feed follows a period of mounting panic among French shoppers after meat from a herd found to contain a diseased cow was sold in supermarkets, prompting a massive recall last month. Beef sales at Paris' wholesale food market are down by more than 50 percent, butchers report, and McDonald's has seen hamburger sales drop by 10 percent in France.
Boost for 'real food' advocates
In a country where people take their food seriously, the "mad cow" scare has hit especially hard. But it has further encouraged the "real food" movement that promotes healthily and carefully raised meat over mass-produced, factory-farmed animals. Consumers are turning in ever greater numbers to poultry and pork raised on small holdings, whose origin can easily be traced.
The government, meanwhile, yesterday announced $389 million in emergency aid for the embattled beef industry, and on Sunday launched a massive campaign aimed at restoring consumer confidence. Full-page ads in national newspapers gave three answers to the question: "Why can beef be consumed without fear?" There is a free telephone hotline for those still unpersuaded.
The crisis has hit French beef exports, as well. The Czech Republic yesterday joined Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Spain in banning French beef imports. Russia imposed strict restrictions. Gabon, in West Africa, yesterday banned meat and meat products from France and Britain.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society