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What is The Pig Idea?

The Pig Idea is a new campaign, started by food waste expert Tristram Stuart and the Feeding the 5000 team in partnership with chef Thomasina Miers to encourage the use of food waste to feed pigs. In addition to diverting legally permissible food waste, ultimately it aims to overturn the EU ban on the feeding of catering waste, or swill, to pigs. This would:

  • Liberate food supplies, particularly cereal crops, so that these can be eaten by people instead of being fed to pigs;
  • Lower feed costs for pig farmers, and so help to protect the British pig industry;
  • Avoid the economic and environmental costs of disposing of food waste, including dumping food waste in landfill sites and leaving it to rot which produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas;
  • Protect landscapes rich in biodiversity, such as the precious Amazonian rainforest, that are under pressure to grow crops to feed pigs;
  • Create jobs and revenue in the new eco-feed industry that will be needed to collect, treat and distribute surplus food so that it can be fed to pigs.

As part of the campaign, the Feeding the 5000 team in partnership with Wahaca Mexican Restaurants will be rearing 8 pigs in London’s very own Stepney City Farm starting from the end of May. The pigs will be cared for by the farm and will be fed on a healthy diet based primarily on food waste that can be legally fed to pigs. In addition, the team will also be holding a Feast, taking place this November (2013) in London's Trafalgar Square.

Background to the campaign

After the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and its devastating consequences on British livestock in 2001, politicians introduced a ban on the feed catering waste to pigs, without considering the ban's economic and environmental impacts. It was tentatively concluded that the FMD outbreak originated on a farm that was illegally feeding its pigs unprocessed restaurant waste.

The government justified the ban because it considered that there was a risk of infected meat entering the food chain. It was originally intended to be a temporary measure, but a government-sponsored enquiry into the government’s handling of the disease outbreak (the Anderson Enquiry) recommended that the ban be continued. In 2002 it was extended across the whole of the European Union.

A short-term ban during the crisis may have been justified, but science has shown that cooking leftover food renders it safe for pigs. It’s time to consider lifting this unnecessary, unscientific, and environmentally destructive law.

Why let them eat waste

At present, we have a system in Europe where pigs are being fed food that humans could otherwise eat, and much of this feed is soy, grown on the Amazonian basin where rainforest is being cut down at an alarming rate. 97 percent of global soy production is used for animal feed and Europe now imports 40 million tonnes of soymeal a year. The amount of land needed to produce soy for the European market since the ban on meat and bone meal is roughly equal to the area of deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest since that date.

The governments of other countries such as Japan, South Korea, China and many states in the USA recognise that the best way of turning food waste into a valuable resource is to feed it to livestock. Instead of banning the practice, the Japanese government support pig farmers who want to use food waste as feed. The resulting pork is sold at a premium as eco-pork on the same supermarket shelves from which the waste originated.

In the UK, thousands of British pig farmers have gone out of business because of increases in the price of wheat, maize and soy – the principal ingredients of pig and chicken food – on the global market place where the farmers are competing with people who wish to buy these grains for their own consumption. Returning to the practice of recycling food waste for livestock feed would be a way of increasing Europe’s food security for the future.

Is it safe?

With the correct biosecurity measures in place, yes it is! Cooking leftover food renders it safe for pigs, and also for chickens. Pathogens such as FMD and Classical Swine Fever are effectively eliminated by heat treatment. Pigs and chickens are omnivorous animals, evolved to eat all the kinds of food that humans eat, and there is no evidence that feeding them properly treated food waste is unhealthy either to the animals, or to humans. That’s why countries like Japan and South Korea encourage this practice instead of banning it.

We can draw on the experience of other countries to make sure the surplus food is properly treated so it is safe for animals to eat. For example, to avoid the perceived risk of allowing farmers to collect food waste directly, it could be made mandatory for food waste to be treated in centralised processing plants, with simple remotely-monitored temperature gauge technology installed in the sterilisation units.

A final word...

Right up to the end of the 1990s, a ‘pig bin’ was a familiar sight in schools and canteens – particularly in rural areas – collecting leftover food to feed to pigs. This was welcomed by farmers as a way to keep down their costs, and caterers who avoided the costs of disposing of the food waste – as well as by pigs as the source of a delicious meal!

Composting and anaerobic digestion are costly methods of disposal and whilst they are much better than landfill, using food waste as livestock feed is environmentally and economically preferable. The carbon emissions savings of feeding food waste to pigs can be around 20 times greater than sending the same food waste for anaerobic digestion.

Links and other sources