Photo/IllutrationOstriches eat scraps of vegetables at a garbage processing plant of Chutoku Co. in Kudamatsu, Yamaguchi Prefecture (Atsushi Misawa)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KUDAMATSU, Yamaguchi Prefecture--Garbage processing and recycling company Chutoku Co. is not burying its head in the sand in the face of the need for ecological solutions for food waste.

It recruited ostriches, and the benefits are substantial.

As well as a ravenous appetite for discarded fruit and vegetables, the flightless birds are helping make products that alleviate human suffering from hay fever and house dust allergies.

An enclosure for two male and five female ostriches in a corner of a plant here is a “recycling center” for food scraps from Chutoku, based in the neighboring city of Shunan, that collects, processes and recycles general rubbish.

Just after 8 a.m. one day in April, a small truck arrived with a load of vegetable scraps from supermarkets in Shunan, including cabbage and lettuce leaves. Chopped up for easier eating, the ostriches stretch their long necks to munch them out of feeding troughs.

“The seven consume almost 70 kilograms of vegetables a day among them,” said Tsutomu Yamamoto, 30, the leader of a section that explores new garbage processing methods for future use.

The company started keeping ostriches in 2012. It was the brainchild of company president Fukumi Hashimoto, 53, who learned that “ostriches eat everything” while chatting with a friend.

At that time, Hashimoto was exploring food waste recycling methods. Every day, her plant received mountains of food that had been thrown away but was still edible. Wasteful as it is to burn food as mere rubbish, food recycling is complicated, and costs a lot to operate.

“Nothing will happen until you make the first move,” is Hashimoto’s motto. In no time, she visited an ostrich farm in Kagoshima Prefecture, southern Japan.

There, she discovered other merits of ostriches. They have no voice box, so are not noisy or bothersome to neighbors. Having a long intestine means a good digestive system, and their manure does not stink. In addition, they have a long life expectancy of 50 to 60 years.

Hashimoto quickly dispatched Yamamoto to the ostrich farm to learn more. After a week or so training there, he concluded they would provide a valid recycling model.

The company acquired the seven birds, and they eat all kinds of fruit and vegetable, except mushrooms, just as Hashimoto wanted.

That was perfect enough, but they soon realized that keeping ostriches comes with another bonus--their giant eggs.

Every year, the five ostrich hens the company keeps lay about 200 eggs among them. A single egg weighs about 1.5 kg, equivalent to 20 average chicken eggs.

Initially, the eggs were consumed by the company’s employees. They fried them up and used them for baking or making puddings. But soon they found they had too many eggs on their hands.

A better use for the eggs arose when Hashimoto met Yasuhiro Tsukamoto, a professor of biomedical engineering at Kyoto Prefectural University. Tsukamoto studies methods to produce antibodies from ostrich eggs, and launched a joint research project with Chutoku in 2013.

Chicken eggs have traditionally been used to produce antibodies. When allergens are injected into a hen, antibodies produced in its body transfer to and concentrate in the yolks of its eggs.

Ostrich eggs’ large size make them far more cost effective to use than those of chickens, as large quantities of antibodies can be collected from one egg, and the cost of feeding the birds at the Chutoku plant is virtually zero.

In 2014, Tsukamoto and Chutoku started a joint project using the antibodies to produce a spray to combat house dust allergies and mitigate allergic symptoms.

Then, in March 2018, the team started manufacturing a brown sugar throat lozenge containing antibodies that fights off pollens of cedar, Japanese cypress, ragweed and rice.

About 2 grams of antibodies can be extracted from one ostrich egg, enough to make 90,000 lozenges.

In experiments, patches of the ostrich antibodies were applied to the skin of hay fever sufferers, and they reported improvement of hay fever symptoms, including tickling sensation in the nose, sneezing and runny noses.

The antibodies from ostriches render allergens harmless in the human body before the body can create its own antibodies, Hashimoto explained.

“It is our company’s mission to solve various problems with living and the environment, and make people happy,” said Hashimoto.