Originally created 08/14/97

Fat chance



The milky liquid in the squeeze bottle looks like gold to Kate Boyd. But in fact, it's fat.

Emu fat.

Those who took up with the emu, a large flightless bird from Australia that's similar to an ostrich, are finally getting some good news. Researchers report that oil made from the bird's fat penetrates the skin more quickly than mineral oil, making it valuable for skin creams. And the oil has been shown to help regenerate skin cells and even hair follicles.

Mrs. Boyd and other emu ranchers watched with dismay as the price of their birds plummeted from a high of $20,000 a few years ago to $300 today. Now it appears that their investment might fly after all.

"It's beginning to look like there's an end in sight with the oil," said Kathleen Clark, who has about 150 emus.

The key to their future is sitting in plain sight on the bird's back. A clump of stringy brown or black feathers covers a hump that is in reality a slab of fat 4 or 5 inches deep. Melted down, the fat can produce about 5 liters of oil.

Some research has focused on the oil's ability to speedily deliver medicine to aching joints and relieve arthritis. Studies in Australia have shown that, when combined with oil of wintergreen, emu oil is effective against arthritis in the hands, elbows and knees. Others believe it could be used to carry anti-inflammatory drugs directly to the site of pain.

In preliminary research in mice, Dr. Michael Holick of Boston University Medical Center reported that the oil produced a 20 percent increase in skin cell production and an 80 percent increase in hair growth.

It is these sketchy results that are opening the door to the health-products market. And the wide variety of those claims have some in the emu industry worried that it could come across as a too-good-to-be-true, not-sold-in-stores miracle scam.

"Initially, we are sensitive to the fact that we don't want to come across selling some snake oil," said William Edwards, president of Dermalay Industries in Bakersfield, Calif., which produces a line of emu-based skin products.

Here again, the fledgling industry is plagued by its own disparate and uncoordinated roots. There are no standards for emu oil, and that can make it difficult to judge the quality of a product, Mr. Edwards said.

"The oil can be made on a kitchen stove, but it's not the same quality as our oil," he said.

Dermalay raises and slaughters its own emus so it can control everything from the feed to the heat in the rendering process. Mr. Edwards said the resulting oil is of pharmaceutical quality and free of bacteria.

The company has persuaded a California drugstore chain to carry its products and is pitching national chains, including Walgreen's, he said.

Demand for emu oil in Augusta relies on word-of-mouth. The supply is available through the mail or from a few small distributors, including Mrs. Clark and Mrs. Boyd. They know of no local stores that carry emu oil but hope that will soon change.

Mrs. Clark, a home health nurse for St. Joseph Hospital, said some of her patients have tried emu oil mixtures for arthritis relief and now rely on it.

"It's a very good anti-inflammatory because it penetrates into the tissue," she said.

Mrs. Boyd believes it cured her tennis elbow.

The next big step for these Augusta emu ranchers will be the opening of a licensed slaughterhouse in Eva, Ala., sometime in the next two months. The slaughterhouse will process the birds for meat but primarily for the oil. Soon many of the pens around Mrs. Boyd's farm won't be as crowded.

Strolling with her past pens with tall gangly ostriches is a four-day-old miniature donkey named Spud who has adopted her as his mother.}

She wades into a pen where more than 100 young emus are milling around, their waist-high heads bobbing. They suddenly flee across the meadow after being spooked. Mrs. Boyd is unsure how many are in the pen because it's impossible to count the ever-wandering brood.

She opens a tall, chain-link gate and sticks her head in, looking for her friendliest adult emu.

"Radar? Radar?" she calls. "Radar, where are you, boy?" There is no movement, no sound from inside the pen. Mrs. Boyd seems puzzled.

"Well, he got out yesterday," she muttered.

Apparently, news about the oil is traveling fast in some circles.