Could There Be a Return of Pig Swill in the EU?

EU - Pig swill has been a dirty term since the foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK in 2001, but Japan and South Korea manage to use it safely and effectively, so could there be scope for a return in the EU? Melanie Jenkins reports for ThePigSite.
calendar icon 29 March 2016
clock icon 7 minute read

Feeding waste food to pigs has been practised for centuries across the globe, both by private smallholders and commercial farming enterprises. But following the devastating foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK in 2001 – which was blamed on inadequate processing of food waste, feeding swill to pigs has been banned across the EU.

According to the National Audit the outbreak was one of the largest in history, taking 221 days to eradicate, costing the country about £8bn and resulting in the slaughter of at least six million animals to contain the disease.

However, some food waste may still be fed to pigs as long as it has not had any contact with meat products and is from premises other than catering establishments. Eligible waste includes milk and other milk-based products; foods containing eggs, rennet or melted fat (where these are not the main ingredients); sweets, jelly and other gelatin-based products; vegetable waste and cereals.
Yet only 3m tonnes of a possible 39m tonnes of manufacturing and processing food waste is included in livestock feed in the EU, with no household waste fed at all.

A recent study by the University of Cambridge examined the potential use and benefits of swill. Published in the Food Policy journal, entitled ‘Reducing the land use of EU pork production; where there’s swill, there’s a way’, the report highlights the current wastage of food and how it could be used to benefit farmers and the environment.

According to Erasmus zu Ermgassen, who led the study, there are benefits financially, environmentally and for food security. “Swill usage can reduce costs for farmers as it is much cheaper than conventional feed,” he says.

“It can also increase food security as there will be less dependence on soyabeans for protein.” Feeding pigs can account for anywhere between 55% and 72% of EU farmers’ production expenditure, so any reduction in cost could make a significant difference.

Reducing wastage is one of the most pressing factors, with an estimated 102.5m tonnes of food wasted in the EU in 2015, which equated to 202kg of food per person, according to the study. Much of this will have gone to landfill, anaerobic digestion, or to incineration; in some parts of the UK food waste makes up 48% of landfill waste.

Feeding swill could help reduce land use for EU pork production by as much as 1.8m ha, to 6.7m ha, highlights the report. The production of soyabeans and grain has a large environmental impact, particularly with deforestation in South America, and feeding swill could reduce demand to convert land into soyabean production, says Mr zu Ermgassen.

Swill could also replace 8.8m tonnes of human edible grains that are currently fed to pigs, which is equivalent to the annual cereal consumption of 70.3m EU citizens, according to the study.

So what happens elsewhere? In 2001, Japan introduced the Promotion and Utilisation of Recycled Food Waste Act, which has helped to promote pigs reared on food waste as an eco-food. Although closer to home there is some concern as to the quality of meat produced from food waste, the Cambridge study shows that quality is unaffected and feeding waste can actually add marbling to the meat and increase its value. Indeed, in Japan, marketing waste-reared pigs has allowed farmers to sell their pork at a premium price.

However, there are concerns that this marketing will not have the same effect in the EU. Mr zu Ermgassen is hoping to undertake research into the attitudes of UK people towards the idea. “Knowledge about pig farming helps and what we see in Japan is that those who are well informed seem much more accepting, so education is very important,” he says. The study also points out that pigs are omnivores and have been fed on a diet of scraps for 10,000 years.

The recycling of food waste in Japan is stringently regulated, covering collection, transport, storage and treatment. The waste must be heated for a minimum of 30 minutes at 70?C or three minutes at 80?C. Household waste is not used due to the risk of contamination from foreign, inedible objects.

However, in South Korea household waste is used but is screened for foreign objects before use.There, the waste must be treated to a core temperature of 80?C for 30 minutes, with neither country having a disease outbreak reportedly directly caused by swill feeding. Respectively, Japan and South Korea recycled 35.9% and 42.4% of food waste as animal feed in 2006/7.

However, both Japan and South Korea have had FMD outbreaks since 2000, with a major outbreak in Japan in 2010/11 and outbreaks in South Korea in this time, the most recent in January 2016. In this time, South Korea has spent W3tn (£2bn) on dealing with FMD eradication and compensation.

In the UK, before the swill ban, the law prescribed that swill must be heated for no less than one hour at 100?C, or by an alternative method specified in the processor’s licence. However, even that didn’t stop untreated waste causing the catastrophic FMD outbreak.

There are therefore still major concerns related to the use of swill in Europe, largely due to the threat of diseases such as FMD and swine fever. “Protecting the UK from animal disease is a top priority for Defra,” says a Defra spokesperson.

“Feeding waste food to pigs has been directly responsible for major notifiable disease outbreaks around the world, including the 2001 FMD outbreak in Britain, which is why it is now banned. There is no immediate prospect of this ban being lifted.”

Even so, people are still feeding food waste to pigs in the UK, despite the ban. According to a survey by the University of Liverpool almost 25% of pig-keeping smallholders were found to feed their pigs on untreated household scraps. Whether swill is banned or not, there are still disease risks.

The National Pig Association (NPA) is also opposed to a future re-introduction of swill feeding. “Diseases can survive in meat for long periods and are easily transferred from meat to other produce, which is why feeding waste to pigs is so problematic,” says Lizzie Wilson at the NPA.

Almost half of the UK’s pig feed already comes from co-products such as rapemeal, wheatfeed, biscuit meal, brewers’ grains and cereal products, she adds. “If these foods were not used by the pig industry they would, in the main, go to landfill.” However, they could otherwise be used as animal feed for cattle.

Other potentially prohibiting factors include setting up the infrastructure to operate a valid food waste treatment facility, the possible negative impact on feed conversion and coping with product variability in pig diets. Many large commercial pig farmers are also against swill feeding in the UK. “The risks are just too great and the disease burden would fall on the pig industry.”

Across the EU, addressing a possible reintroduction of swill is not a high priority, according to James Mills, policy advisor at NFU Brussels. “The priority is to look for other domestic protein sources such as EU produced beans or soya.” It goes without saying that the disease risk is one of the top concerns surrounding pig swill, but consumer attitudes are another thing to consider, he says. “It is not something that anyone is actively pursuing in the EU Commission.”

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

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