In a small Wisconsin county, a very sweet mystery just took a sticky turn.
It began last week, when officers with the Dodge County Sheriff's Office stumbled upon a downright bizarre sight on a rural highway roughly 60 miles west of Milwaukee. The blacktop almost glowed in the dark — a shimmery, oddly beautiful red. The entire highway was a sea of the color, stretching further than the eye can see in a photograph released by the Sheriff's Office.
Closer inspection revealed the source of such otherworldly beauty wasn't a mystery of the natural world. It was hundreds of thousands of Skittles, all of them strawberry, all of them strangely missing the candy's white "S" on the hard shells.
"There's no little 'S' on them, but you can definitely smell, it's a distinct Skittles smell," Sheriff Dale Schmidt told WISN.
In a Facebook post, the Sheriff's Office cheekily wrote, "While we don't know who did this, it is certainly clear that it may be difficult to 'Taste the Rainbow' in it's entirety with one color that likely fell off the truck!"
A few days later, authorities had gotten the whole scoop. According to police, the Skittles were being driven in a flatbed truck to be mixed with more cattlefeed and then fed to cattle. An unnamed farmer allegedly purchased this particular batch.
"The Skittles were confirmed to have fallen off the back of a truck. The truck was a flatbed pickup and the Skittles were in a large box. Due to it raining at the time, the box got wet and gave way allowing the Skittles to spill out on the roadway. It is reported that the Skittles were intended to be feed for cattle as they did not make the cut for packaging at the company. In the end these Skittles are actually for the Birds!"
That might sound odd — It certainly did to many on the Internet, such as the New York Post which wrote "Farmers have been secretly feeding cows Skittles." — but feeding cattle discarded foodstuffs is actually increasingly common, especially as corn prices continue to rise.
And there's absolutely nothing secret about it.
"It has been a practice going on for decades and is a very good way ... for producers to reduce feed cost, and to provide less expensive food for consumers," Ki Fanning, a livestock nutritionist with Great Plains Livestock Consulting, Inc., told CNN in 2012.
Reuters reported in 2012, "As the worst drought in half a century has ravaged this year's U.S. corn crop and driven corn prices sky high, the market for alternative feed rations for beef and dairy cows has also skyrocketed. Brokers are gathering up discarded food products and putting them out for the highest bid to feed lot operators and dairy producers, who are scrambling to keep their animals fed."
Among those items are cookies, gummy worms, orange peels and, yes, Skittles.
Padding cow feed with candy is fairly standard practice, John Waller, a professor of animal nutrition at the University of Tennessee, told LiveScience in 2012. It works because cows are ruminant animals.
As LiveScience explained,"Ruminant animals, which include goats, sheep, cattle and giraffes, take their name from the first of four compartments in their stomach, the rumen. In it, food is broken down into solids and liquids by robust microbes, after which the partially digested solids, now called the cud, are regurgitated and re-chewed."
"Ruminant animals are very good at utilizing a wide variety of feedstuffs, because the microbes in the rumen can digest things that other animals can't utilize," Waller said, adding that so long as a cow receives the correct ratio of carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins and minerals, their source doesn't matter. Candy is as good as corn.
Even so, it seems something was rotten in Wisconsin.
The Mars candy company said while it does participate in programs through which it sells discarded candies to cattle farmers, that isn't what happened in this case. For one thing, Mars doesn't sell directly to farmers.
Denise Young, a spokeswoman for Mars, said these Skittles certainly weren't going to be sold in America's gas stations because a power outage at its plant in Yorkville, Illinois, prevented the stamping of the "S" on the candies — an omission the sheriff had quickly noted.
But that particular plant doesn't sell any of its discarded candies for cattle feed, Linda Kurtz, a corporate environmental manager at Mars, told the Associated Press.
Young said the company contacted both the Dodge County Sheriff's Office and the unnamed farmer who allegedly purchased the Skittles to learn more.
"We don't know how it ended up as it did, and we are investigating," Mars said in a statement to the AP.
Until then, the spill of thousands of Skittles remains a mystery. A delicious black market? A pipeline of sugar? A candy conspiracy? An honest mix-up?
Only time will tell.