PIGS ARE being touted as the solution to the UK foodservice sector's food waste problem. But there are reputation risks attached to the concept.
The Pig Idea is a campaign that is quickly gathering momentum. The aim is to lift the European ban on feeding food waste from commercial and domestic kitchens to pigs, and put in place a well-regulated system of collection and treatment that is both environmentally and economically favourable to anaerobic digestion (AD).
Fergus Henderson, Giles Coren, Jimmy Doherty and Michel Roux Jr are among the growing list of supporters – or “hambassadors”. Fellow celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is also a fan: “Pigs can be a highly effective recycling system, with the potential to turn a massive problem of food waste into a delicious solution. It’s mad not to.”
However, many of those in the farming fraternity believe it’s a well-meant but crazy idea. “We appreciate that The Pig Idea campaigners have the best of intentions and have been at pains to explain all the legal issues, but we remain concerned that promoting the image of pigs eating waste food is unhelpful,” says the National Pig Association (NPA) general manager, Zoe Davies.
The NPA launched its own campaign last month, Don’t Kill Me With Kindness, warning pig-keepers of the risk of prison if they give waste to pigs. “Rather than take unacceptable risks by feeding catering waste to pigs, we think it is more sensible to tackle waste further up the chain, so that far less of it is wasted at manufacturing, retail and household level,” Davies said.
Feeding waste food from catering establishments including home kitchens and restaurants — even if it is only vegetables — has been banned since the 2001 national foot-and-mouth outbreak, which devastated countryside tourism and livestock farming and caused the compulsory slaughter of over 6m farm animals. The outbreak was thought to have started on a farm where pigs had been illegally fed unprocessed restaurant waste.
The current EU law also covers food waste from other premises, including food factories and distribution warehouses, that contains or has been in contact with animal by-products such as raw eggs, meat and fish products. None of these items may be fed to pigs, including pet ones.
Those behind the new campaign want politicians to reconsider. “It’s currently legal to feed unsold bread, dairy, fruit and vegetables to pigs so long as the retailer or business is registered with the correct authorities,” the campaign co-ordinator, Edd Colbert, told the food magazine Delicious recently. “This is a practice that we are advocating and encouraging, but our longer-term aim is to lift the ban on catering waste and animal by- products which are currently illegal but which, given the correct heat treatment, would be absolutely safe for non-ruminants [pigs and chickens] and also humans to eat.”
The campaigners argue that this is not a nostalgic return to pigswill but the introduction of a “really well regulated system” that is proven in places such as Japan, South Korea and some US states. It would also offer a more sustainable option for caterers and commercial kitchens looking to divert their food waste from landfill, they say.
Health and safety risks aside, feeding food waste to pigs is undoubtedly better environmentally than sending it to landfill. But it’s also potentially better than AD. The campaign website claims that “around 20 times more carbon dioxide emissions can be saved by feeding food waste to pigs rather than sending it for AD”. Others agree that there could be big benefits.
“By sending food waste to AD you can avoid the emissions released through degradation in a landfill,” explains Adam Read, the practice director for waste at the energy environmental consultants Ricardo-AEA. “However, compare this to the carbon saved through feeding food waste to pigs [given] the energy and water required and carbon emitted to grow feed grains such as wheat and soya – not to mention the use of mineral fertilisers that have a much higher level of embedded carbon energy and greenhouse gas emissions – and it is a no-brainer.”
When it comes to dealing with food waste, preventing waste or feeding it to people are the top priority, while redirecting waste for animal consumption is preferable to energy recovery. A WRAP spokeswoman confirmed: “If surplus food is generated by businesses we then encourage redistribution to humans where appropriate, or it being used as animal feed provided this is done in compliance with the relevant legislation. Thereafter, anaerobic digestion and composting offer effective food waste treatment options. All of these are preferable to landfilling food waste, both financially and environmentally.”
The campaigners also argue that feeding pigs with food waste could save businesses money. “Those who produce waste have to pay £80 to £100 a tonne to get rid of it, whether it’s sent to landfill, anaerobic digestion or composting,” says Tristram Stuart, a campaigner on food waste. Feeding the waste to pigs “can, in contrast be a profitable business without any government support”.
Nevertheless, the economic case is perhaps less clear-cut than the environmental one. Peter Charlesworth, from the consultants Carbon Statement, is studying the gaps in UK infrastructure that are preventing more hospitality food waste from ending up at AD plants. He has discovered the big challenge is making separation and collection of food waste commercially viable. There are solutions, to be published imminently, but extending them to pig feed could be a step too far. “From a practical point of view and the commercial reality, it doesn’t stack up,” he says.
The NPA’s Davies expands on the point: “We don’t disagree with a lot of the elements of the campaign, but who will subsidise the treatment plants they are talking about and how do you get it to the plants? Food waste is also very variable so how do we manage the pigs’ diet?”
Stuart says the meat produced from pigs fed on food waste could be sold as “premium eco-pork”, but experts Footprint spoke to had their doubts. “Swill is variable in quality so variability in pig performance is a consequence of its use,” explains Professor Julian Wiseman, the head of the animal science division at the University of Nottingham. He suggests food waste is not so much a replacement as an alternative means of feeding pigs, adding that there is a risk of potentially fairly high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids in swill making the carcasses more prone to rancidity.
Soya imports have reportedly increased by over a million tonnes since the EU ban in 2002 and the feed is now “bloody expensive”, admits Davies, but swill doesn’t provide the only answer. Work continues on initiatives such as “green pork” to replace soya with beans and peas (see Footprint July 2012, p12, available online).
The likes of the NPA would far rather pursue this than food waste given the risk of revisiting 2001. Others tend to agree. Mark Haighton is the supply chain development manager at the largest pork producer in the UK, Tulip. He feels the logistics and policing of the regulations are “too big a job to do properly and should be avoided”, adding: “The risk to the meat industry of another foot-and-mouth or swine fever outbreak is massive with the rest of the world more than willing to close their borders to UK meat exports. We’ve only just got back into places like China and Australia following the foot-and-mouth outbreak 12 years ago.”
So what does the foodservice sector think? Some big names are backing the campaign, not least Thomasina Miers, who runs the Wahaca restaurant chain. Stuart says he has had “a lot of positive responses” from other businesses including some of the big caterers – however, none have backed the campaign publicly as yet.
Phil Seddon, a senior brand designer at the food and drink agency Mystery, says the foodservice sector, much like the farming fraternity, has reputational issues to consider. He says the nostalgic view of feeding pigs the leftovers of school dinners, which may have been seen as the key positive message in terms of sustainability, has been more than countered by the food panics of the 80s and 90s.
“As with any food and catering business, negative stories – real or rumoured – can be costly or terminal for brands,” he explains. “The damage done by the horse meat scandal has been a hugely costly PR exercise to reverse. Consumers are more sensitive than ever about traceability and provenance.
“Now more than ever, any risk of contamination has the potential to be disastrous for food brands – particularly those using this angle as a positive brand message.”