The introduction of a formalised system of sterilising and processing waste food and converting it into a useable livestock feed is inevitable, according to waste food expert Tristram Stuart.
Mr Stuart said he believed a nationwide off-farm food-recycling programme will provide vast tonnages of low-cost feed for UK pig producers.
And, he said, because of the ever-increasing concern for environmental and economic approaches to food production, the demand will be driven by consumers.
“There will soon be zero tolerance among consumers over the 20m tonnes of waste food that has to be disposed of every year in the UK,” said Mr Stuart, lecturer at Sussex University and author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal.
But can consumers ever be fully convinced that a processing system for waste food will be used to produce pig-meat that’s safe, compared with that produced on a cereal diet?
According to Mr Stuart, yes they can.
And he staunchly defended the reputation of human food waste when it is accused of posing serious health risks – not to mention being the trigger for the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic.
“There’s never been any scientific evidence that has proved or linked the feeding of processed waste food to pigs with foot-and-mouth or swine fever,” said Mr Stuart. “And it’s wrong to believe there’s a total refusal among pig producers to accept that waste food has to have a future role in the UK pig industry.
“It does, and more pig farmers agree with that,” said Mr Stuart.
He identified waste food as falling into two categories – that which is only deemed to be waste by the nature of its sell-by date and that which has been cooked or processed in some way but has not been consumed.
“There are massive tonnages of food coming out of supermarkets that are only classed as waste because they are outside their sell-by date.
“A lot of this is meat-free and includes bread and cereal-based foods as well as dairy products, vegetables and fruit. Much of this waste food is still fit for human consumption but it isn’t coming back into the food chain – so we must look at turning it into livestock feed,” he said.
“Even if there are those who have issues over processing meat-based waste food for livestock, why aren’t we making more use of the non-meat-based waste? That at least would be a start,” said Mr Stuart.
He is convinced the strong swing of public opinion in favour of the economic and environmental advantages of utilising waste food will bring about the necessary changes to EU law.
“There has been an overwhelming change in public opinion on the issue of waste food and it’s this complete change of mindset that will drive forward the ethical arguments – not only to make use of the food but also for the impact it will have on the environment.
“The EU imports 40m tonnes of soya a year. Producing that soya comes at a huge environmental cost. If we made more use of waste food for animal feed we could substantially reduce pig farmers’ costs of production as well as having a significant environmental impact.”
Mr Stuart said that centralised and officially regulated processing plants should be set up to heat-treat and process waste food into animal feed.
“The government isn’t there yet, but public pressure is mounting and something will have to be done. Livestock farmers must get behind this.”
He gave one example of the ignorance that pervaded the food sector in relation to waste food.
“A company making sandwiches for a major retailer was told that it must discard the first four slices of every loaf because the shape of the slices wasn’t uniform.
“That represented a 17% wastage of bread and was costing the company £60-£80 a tonne for disposal. Since addressing this situation the company is now selling the 17% of waste bread and earning an extra £100,000 as a result.”
Feeding pigs swill was ‘way ahead of its time’
A new and profitable sector of the UK pig industry could be safely and formally created by utilising large tonnages of the waste human food that are produced in the UK every year, said Lynda Davies one of the 62 pig swill feeders who was put out of business by the ban in 2001.
Mrs Davies said the ethos of feeding waste food as “swill” to pigs was a re-cycling process that was “way ahead of its time”.
“It’s ironic that the ban on feeding waste food to pigs was introduced at a time when the regulations and standards applied on the farms involved had never been more rigid. We had an industry that was meticulously monitored and controlled and was doing an outstanding job in providing a top quality food source for finishing pigs,” said Mrs Davies, of Bury, Greater Manchester.
Before the ban she ran a business with her husband Alan collecting and supplying waste food to pig farmers for processing. Since 2001 she has been campaigning for the producers whose businesses were shut-down as a consequence but never received any compensation.
“Apart from the unfairness of what happened a decade ago, we now need to look forward and re-open the debate about waste food. We have to move away from the old terminology of calling this material “swill” – it’s quality food that can be safely processed for re-use.
“This was a system of re-cycling before anyone had heard of the term and deserves to be re-instated on moral as well as economical grounds,” she said.
Mrs Davies added that it was incumbent upon leaders of the pig farming industry to properly evaluate the potential of utilising waste food and the value it could be to pig producers facing rocketing cereal costs.
Even if on-farm processing did not resume, there was an opportunity for independent processing plants – owned by the private sector or local authorities – to turn this material into useable feed for pigs.
“As well as the economic advantages of this, if a new strategy for waste food isn’t forthcoming we’re simply staring at a time-bomb of disease. Waste food is still tipped daily on to landfill sites across the UK – sites that are infested with seagulls and vermin that are rapid carriers of disease.
“Surely it would make sense from a bio-security standpoint – as well as an economical one – to maintain total control of this material and utilise it more efficiently.
“Pigs fed correctly processed waste food produce high quality pork. What a great marketing opportunity there would be to produce and promote the “British Eco-pig” as pork produced from recycled food,” she said.
Swill ‘workable and safe’
Staffordshire farmer Jason Podmore, who also swill-fed pigs up until May 2001 said a new approach to utilising waste food as feed, would be “workable and safe”.
“There’s definitely a big opportunity to make better use of all the food we waste. A regulated system where centralised cooking plants could boil the food and produce a safe and valuable base diet to feed to pigs should be a top priority in a society that’s now so concerned with reducing waste,” said Mr Podmore.
He had invested over £200,000 in plant and equipment to provide waste food boiling facilities to feed pigs on his large-scale finishing unit. He received no compensation when his business was shut down during the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001.
“There are thousands of tonnes of waste food that shouldn’t end up in landfill. With the right amount of regulation there’s no reason why a nationwide scheme couldn’t be set up. It would deal with the issue of waste food, create a totally safe food source and help pig producers cut their costs,” he said.
Waste issues could force re-think
Solicitor Tim Russ questioned how long the environmental and ethical issues associated with re-processing waste food could be ignored by a government with a strong commitment to the environmental lobby.
“This is now a topic that urgently needs re-visiting. It’s no longer acceptable to be paying to have waste food removed when it could be re-processed and used,” said Mr Russ, agricultural solicitor with Clarke Willmott based at Taunton.
“Re-processing waste food has significant environmental advantages, it’s typical of the sustainable systems the industry is striving for and it’s a safe method of disposal.”