UK Pig Industry Body's Position on Feeding Food Waste

UK - The National Pig Association explains in a position paper how the pig industry can help support efforts to reduce food waste without increasing the risks of serious animal diseases.
calendar icon 18 November 2013
clock icon 12 minute read

Pig Producers are Recycling Specialists

As a nation, our goal must be to reduce waste food. It is important that society makes best use of waste from the food chain and the National Pig Association (NPA) supports sensible initiatives to achieve this. As a leader in the recycling of waste food, the pig industry has considerable specialist knowledge and is well-placed to advise on which measures are prudent and achievable, and which are foolish.

NPA is clear that the European Union will not relax its zero-tolerance legislation banning the cannibalistic feeding of swill to pigs, and even if it did, no sensible commercial pig producer would use such a risk-laden product.

Nearly Half of All Pig Feed Comes from ‘Waste’

Pig producers prefer to describe ‘waste food’ as ‘co-product’ because, in the pig industry’s view, no food is waste if it can be used safely in nutritious pig diets. The British pig industry uses 1.23 million tonnes a year of co-product from the human food chain and this accounts for 43.9 per cent of total pig feed produced - notably rapeseed meal, wheatfeed, biscuitmeal, cake, bread, cereal products, starch extraction products and whey. If these foods were not used by the pig industry they would, in the main, go to landfill.

These foods from the human food and drink industry have a clear, documented provenance and pig industry nutritionists are skilled at combining them to create wholesome, consistent and nutritionally-balanced compound diets for pigs.

The industry is currently investigating additional co-product streams. Of the 15 million tonnes of food and drink waste produced annually in the United Kingdom, more than three million tonnes from manufacturing could be recycled safely by the livestock sector. These foods come from responsible businesses that have conducted formal HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) assessments to ensure the co-product is not at any stage exposed to contamination from materials of animal origin such as raw meat, fish, eggs or products derived from or incorporating meat or fish. This separation process covers storage, transport and dispatch of the food.

The pig industry requires these companies to be registered with Trading Standards, to hold a Feed Hygiene Certificate, and to be FEMAS-accredited (Feed Materials Assurance Scheme) in order to qualify for the Red Tractor farm assurance scheme. These safeguards are second nature to many reputable food companies and they are part of the continued vigilance necessary to ensure safety throughout the British food chain. Those who campaign for a return to swill-feeding of pigs may not have fully appreciated the reasons for these safeguards.

The Pig Industry is Reducing its Use of Soya

Much play has been made of livestock producers’ reliance on imported soya, but over the past ten years the pig industry has halved its inclusion of soya in pig diets, by substituting rapeseed meal, peas, beans and distillers’ waste as sources of crude protein. The industry continues to research other protein sources and will continue to reduce its use of soya.

Disease is an Ever-present Risk

Notifiable diseases — predominantly foot and mouth disease, classical swine fever and African swine fever — can survive in meat for long periods and are easily transferred from meat to other produce, which is why feeding waste food to pigs is so problematic. These diseases are easily transferred between pigs and some can infect other livestock species too, so they can spread quickly.

Given the prevalence around the world of foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever and African swine fever — and the free movement of people, vehicles and goods around the world — at any one time, one or more of these diseases is almost certainly present in the United Kingdom. The only way to prevent economically-debilitating outbreaks on farms is to prevent the viruses coming into contact with farm animals.

Feeding untreated waste food to pigs has been directly responsible for major notifiable disease outbreaks around the world, including the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain. The current African swine fever outbreak in Russia continues to spread, as a result of illegal movements and feeding of infected waste food to pigs. The disease remains out of control and there is a risk it could spread to the European Union.

‘Pig Idea’ is Superficially Attractive

Nobody doubts the sincerity and good intentions of the ‘Pig Idea’, which seeks to persuade the European Union to allow the feeding of treated-swill to pigs. Its arguments are superficially attractive and they are presented in an engaging manner by accomplished communicators. However, authorities with specialist knowledge of the food chain and disease control are clear that feeding swill is intrinsically unsafe because sooner or later there would be a breakdown of controls in one or more of the European Union’s 28 member countries. Equally problematic is the likelihood of some domestic pig-keepers failing to understand the need for swill to be treated at specialist plants, and consequently mixing their own swill from kitchen waste, and feeding it to their pigs. (see NPA briefing 'Why feeding kitchen waste is illegal', click here].

Senior vets at the Animal Health Veterinary Laboratories Agency have repeatedly stressed to NPA that in their view the banning of swill-feeding has been the biggest single factor in reducing the risk of exotic disease.And one leading retailer has told NPA that it does not support the feeding of supermarket waste direct to pigs, as it does not have the infrastructure to ensure the food is not contaminated by meat and dairy products.

Legal Obstacles to the ‘Pig Idea’

When feeding processed animal proteins or animal by-products there is a requirement to comply with European Union human and animal disease regulations. To protect human health these require that no ruminant protein is fed to pigs and to protect animal health they require that no porcine material is fed to pigs.

These are both zero-tolerance requirements. However carefully swill is treated at the central plants proposed by the ‘Pig Idea’, it will not comply.

Swill-feeding in Japan and South Korea

Human food self-sufficiency in Japan is just 40 per cent and animal feed has a very low self-sufficiency of only 20 per cent. This makes the feeding of waste human food essential, as the livestock sector would be unsustainable otherwise. So Japan has introduced carefully controlled plants for treating swill. But what can be achieved by a single country, with a culture of regulatory compliance, is not necessarily achievable across the European Union.

Quality problems have been reported in Japan, with the fat of pigs given large amounts of swill becoming soft and unattractive to consumers. Farmers have worked together to overcome this problem. One solution was to use swill mainly from hospitals where plate wastes are low in fat and salts. It was found that swill from hospitals dramatically improved the quality of pork, and added more marbling, which increased its retail value.

In South Korea, the other country that allows the feeding of centrally-treated swill to animals, slower growth and tainted pork are two reasons why commercial pig producers tend to shun processed swill. Consumers are not keen on pork from swill-fed pigs, some claiming the meat carries an odour of rancid fat.

Some smaller producers do use the product but a survey about five years ago found they numbered fewer than 200.

NPA’s pig industry contacts in South Korea insist that high salt levels and variable nutrition make it difficult to maintain consistent growth when pigs are fed swill. As a result, the main users of swill — which is cheaper than other feeds — are duck and dog farmers.

In China, several companies are said to be planning swill-treatment plants but producer and consumer demand is reported to be weak.

How to Use Retail Waste

Retail waste falls into two categories:

  • Packaged product that is wasted before it gets to the store (usually at retail distribution centres), and
  • Product that is wasted in store.

There is a safe food-use pyramid that the pig industry would support:

  • In-date food that is wasted should be sent to charities such as FareShare and diverted for human consumption.
  • Food fit for animal consumption but not human that is either produced during product manufacture in a meat-free plant, or that is packaged and handled through a registered FEMAS-assured company can be diverted to pig feed.
  • Unpackaged food at store level or food that is not fit for consumption should be diverted to anaerobic digestion or in-vessel composting. Such processes provide a useful output in the form of energy (which provides an alternative income source), remove any undesirable pathogens and convert the final product into a safe and low-odour fertiliser for re-use therefore reducing reliance on artificial fertilisers.

Why Direct-from-retail Food is Too Risky

NPA believes that sourcing non-meat waste food directly from supermarkets for further processing into animal feed is unwise. Whilst HACCP-based plans may be agreed by Defra and the local Animal Health Office, NPA believes that the risk of cross-contamination with meat products or of products that have been in contact with meat is high, particularly as there are likely to be less well-informed staff at the supermarket who don’t understand the importance of properly segregating the products into the right bin.

If it became common practice for retailers to send their waste food for use in pig feed, it would be particularly hard to explain to consumers why they shouldn’t be allowed to do the same in their own homes.

Question Marks over Feeding Swill

Central processing plants for waste food may be an option for the future, but they come with a raft of issues that must be addressed first.

  • Is there a valid business model? Who will pay for the plants to be built? Current Government policy is to support anaerobic digestion plants in order to meet its renewable energy targets.
  • If waste food is to be converted to pig feed, it will need to reach the plant in a good enough state for use — whereas state of decay is not an issue when waste food is going for anaerobic digestion.
  • Coping with product variability will be problematic bearing in mind the modern pig’s very specific nutritional requirements. Treated waste food is highly variable and is high in saturated fat. It also contains ingredients such as heavy metals — for instance zinc, which is only allowed in pig diets in a limited quantity.
  • If pigs become the focus for disposal of waste food, the level of ammonia and nitrogen excreted by pigs may increase, exchanging one kind of environmental pollution for another.
  • A variable diet of treated swill would also impact growth, food conversion and days to slaughter, further reducing environmental efficiency.
  • Extra protein may have to be added to some swill diets, adding cost, and the product would need to be dried as very few producers can accept liquid feed.

Assuming it is possible to overcome the problems above, and produce a safe, consistent feed, will it be available at an economic price? All reliable protein sources find a price level in the market that is linked to other proteins. For instance, processed animal protein costs around £450 a tonne, which is more than soya.

Will supermarkets and consumers accept pork from pigs fed on swill? Will it be seen as a premium eco-product? These are critical questions and legislators and pig producers will need to see properly researched data before the concept of centralised processing plants can progress.

Anaerobic Digestion

Waste food collected from households can be sent to anaerobic digestion to create energy and produce a fertiliser to grow more food, or may be composted at licensed sites, producing a soil conditioner and plant fertiliser, again to grow more food.

The digestion and composting processes and controls applied through licensing minimises the risks of disease transmission to humans, livestock and plants to a level deemed acceptable to the European Commission. Both anaerobic digestion and in-vessel composting can take waste cooked meat of any species. Digesters and composting sites can use many feed stocks and can more easily be located near centres of population than pig farms.

In addition to producing fertiliser for food crops, they can also generate surplus energy for the National Grid.

Anatomy of a Notifiable Disease Outbreak

Over 10 million pigs, sheep and cattle were slaughtered in the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic in Britain, which took nine months to bring under control. These days better control mechanisms are in place and it is hoped the next outbreak will be brought under control more quickly. But an outbreak of any of the diseases above will mean the slaughter of some farm animals - possibly thousands, or even millions - a ban on moving animals from farm to farm in at-risk areas, and the loss of export markets.

The 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak cost the United Kingdom public sector £3 billion and private businesses £5 billion. Public footpaths were closed and tourism collapsed in some areas which had a serious and long-lasting impact on local economies. A worldwide ban was placed on all exports of live pigs and pig meat and some of these markets were not reopened for a decade.

Vaccination would have damaged British exports for even longer as it is difficult to distinguish between an infected and a vaccinated animal. Any animal that was infected shortly after being vaccinated could harbour and spread foot-and-mouth without showing symptoms itself.

  • Foot-and-mouth disease affects pigs, wild boar, cattle, sheep, goats, hedgehogs, rats and mice. The virus can survive for long periods in a range of fresh, partially cooked, cured, smoked and frozen meats, in some cases for over six months. It can also survive pasteurisation in milk and it can survive up to two weeks on clothing and for over a year on wood contaminated with fat.
  • Classical swine fever affects pigs and wild boar. The virus can remain infectious for months in refrigerated meat and for years in frozen meat. Like foot-and-mouth, it can survive for up to two weeks on clothing.
  • African swine fever affects pigs and wild boar. The virus is highly resistant to environmental conditions. It can remain active for over four months in some meats and for years in frozen carcasses.
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