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Our 53rd Year

Patently Ridiculous By Consuelo Reyes

Each week The New York Times’ business section has a column describing new patents deemed to be of particular interest to the general public. While many readers no doubt marvel at this display of man’s imperturbable cleverness, others among us view it as a window into the current state of “advanced” thinking and, consequently, step with a bit more trepidation toward the new millennium. Following are a few cases in point.

Nabisco’s new nut: Many “Patent” columns have to do with the creation of new and “better” edibles, more commonly known as “designer foods.” The June 2, 1997 offering, for example, announced the awarding of a patent to Denise Zook, a worker at Nabisco, Inc., for the invention of a low-calorie, low-fat nut.

It seems that any “real” nut can be used as a starting point. According to columnist Sabra Chartrand, Ms. Zook begins by removing some of the nuts’ “excess” oil: “The nuts are pressed until oil oozes out, and then soaked in water until their size and shape is restored…The nuts are subjected to a vacuum and then, soaked in an edible oil and dye…The edible coloring is intended to give the nuts the right hue. After the soaking, the nuts are subjected to pressure of at least 10 pounds per square inch. They are allowed to sit for about an hour and then roasted.”

Ummm, yum. So what if the “food” has little to no nutritional value, much less taste. Still, one shutters to imagine what future generations, who feed on these low-fat, lifeless wonders, will look like.

The November 24, 1997, “Patent” column by Teresa Riordan reported on several cutting edge techniques for raising and killing turkeys that had arrived “just in time for Thanksgiving”:

BOC Gases received a patent for the idea of suffo9ating turkeys in a chamber containing carbon dioxide and argon but very little oxygen so that the animals die after 1-2 minutes. This has several advantages over the slower standard electrocution method which causes the birds to flap unhappily as workers struggle to hang them up for throat slitting. According to Bill Baker, director of food marketing at the company’s American headquarters in New Jersey, with the BOC gases, “…picking up a turkey that’s already dead is a much easier job.”

Processing with the BOC chamber also enables carving up to occur many hours earlier than with electricity because “the gas sting accelerates rigor mortis.”

No mention, of course, is made of any loss in flavor or nutritional value as a result of the unfortunate bird’s absorption of the lethal gases.

Mohamed Ell Hallawani, a professor of reproductive physiology at the University of Minnesota, has discovered a way to solve the “broody hen” problem, long irksome to large commercial turkey farmers. It seems that turkey hens like to lay their eggs and then sit on them until they hatch. But the name of the game, of course, is quantity and so the turkey farmer takes the eggs away to hatch elsewhere so that the hen can get working on a new set as soon as possible. This makes the hens unhappy or “broody.” They try to bite the farmer and often stop laying eggs.

Enter Professor Halawani. He discovered that broody hens secrete into the bloodstream elevated levels of a peptide which then signals the pituitary gland to release high leveLs of a hormone which causes ovulation to stop. Voilà! No eggs. So the Professor created antibodies that block the peptide so that, broody or not, the hers keep on laying!

But what of the long-term effects of hormone interference on chronically unhappy hens? Could it be that by not violating natural maternal instincts, you’ll avoid the extra costs and risks of chemical injection and produce far superior results?

Nova-Tech Engineering has developed an answer to a problem characteristic of commercially bred turkeys and chickens which are typically raised in very close proximity. Squeezed for lebensraum, the birds attack each other. To prevent injuries, the tips of the beaks are usually cut off or cauterized. But such procedures produce “a substantial amount of pain and shock in the bird.”

The new patent covers a device that uses high-frequency radiation to remove the top of the beak, while leaving the lower beak and tongue intact which are less effective as a weapon in the overcrowding. After a couple of weeks, the radiation results in the top beak falling off.

Alleviation of pain and suffering are admirable goals, but what about that radiation zap?

Ah, the cleverness of man! But not yet clever enough to come up with a patent on wisdom…