Is It Safe to Feed Pigs Our Food Waste?
Aiming to reduce the amount of food that ends up rotting in landfills, celebrity British chefs have proposed what they are calling the Pig Idea, a campaign to feed pigs on British farms food waste from restaurants. Doing so can be to the benefit of farmers according to the Pig Idea’s creators, environmentalist Tristram Stuart and Thomasina Miers, a MasterChef winner and the founder of a restaurant chain, Wahaca.
British farmers have been objecting to the idea of feeding their animals swill. They are still haunted by a massive outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 that led to the slaughter of 6.5 million animals on 10,000 farms, at a cost of £8 billion. Pigs caught the virus from eating swill containing infected or contaminated meat.
Heat sterilization can kill the virus via a process that requires a “complicated chain of steps to gather food waste and make it safe for pigs to eat,” as BPEX, which represents pig farmers in England, tells the Guardian. A failure in this process was indeed the cause of the 2001 outbreak and has been a reason for a 2003 European Union ban on using swill to feed pigs. A current outbreak of swine fever in Russia has been attributed to feeding pigs infected waste food, the British Pig Association points out.
That’s the word from farmers who are raising pigs. But there are also, as Stuart, Miers and supporters of the Pig Idea make very clear, compelling reasons to feed pigs swill.
Feeding Pigs Swill Could Be a Solution For the Problem of Food Waste
One reason this is a good idea is the 4.2 million tons of food that are discarded every year in the U.K. (and in lots of other places including the United States, where 36 million tons were generated in 2011). Food waste can be made safe for pig feed, Pig Idea proponents say, providing that it is properly sterilized. As they point out, ”governments in Japan, South Korea, China and many U.S. states” have been promoting the conversion of food waste into feed for livestock. Were pigs in the U.K. allowed to eat food waste, centralized processing plants could be created to ensure that the swill is safe.
Another reason is that commercial feed made from soy is expensive. Purchasing it accounts for up to 75 percent of pig farmers’ costs and “soaring” prices have put many pig farmers out of business. While there were 8.1 million pigs being raised in 1998 in the U.K., there were only 4.8 million in 2007.
Indeed, a “crazy system” has emerged in which not only are 60 percent of the pigs consumed in the U.K. imported from Denmark and the Netherlands, but the pigs raised in the U.K. are given feed made from grain and soy that was grown far away. Every year, 40 millions tons of soymeal are imported into the U.K.; all of this is from the Amazon basin where, as has been too often noted, the rainforest is being cut down at a staggering rate.
Pig Farmers Have Valid Safety Concerns
Alastair Butler, a free-range pig farmer, is dubious about how safe swill can be made. “The key argument is the risk factor but there’s no way these guys can come up with a 100 percent guaranteed safe way of doing this,” he says in the Guardian.
Such concerns have meant that, in the United States, only a small percentage of pigs are now fed swill. The main problem is that it contains meat which, as Michael Westendorg, a Rutgers University extension animal scientist, notes must be regulated by the federal government. Dining halls at Rutgers as well as casinos and prisons have given New Jersey farmers food scraps to feed pigs for the past several years, an arrangement in part made possible by the relative proximity of farmers to the source of the discarded food. (Indeed, Rutgers has an agricultural school with a farm on its grounds in the midst of heavily suburbanized New Jersey.)
Dumping Discarded Food In Landfills Is No Solution Either
Across the globe, almost a third of third of all food is wasted. Letting all of it rot in landfills poses safety problems of its own as this creates “a potentially huge health hazard from the possible spread of disease from gulls, rodents and other vermin that feast on it,” Miers writes in the Guardian.
Stuart and Miers recently served lunch to 5,000 people in Trafalgar Square. Starting in September, the Pig Idea had fed eight pigs on “brewers’ grains, whey, leftover fruit and veg – absolutely nothing that has been in contact with meat,” all donated by businesses in London and its environs.
“Let pigs eat swill,: as Miers writes. After all, that’s what has been going on for hundreds of years, leading to “pigs and humans [living] in perfect harmony for more than 5,000 years precisely because pigs are such good converters of waste.” Rather then quail under the fear of disease, Miers and other Pig Idea supporters are betting that we can go back to the future and, by feeding pigs swill, devise a sustainable solution to food waste.
Has the time come to embrace such a Pig Idea?
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