September 27th, 2013

Fit for pigs?

7 minute read

by Edd Colbert


Pigs are perhaps the original solution to the problem of food waste, but one that current farming practice and legislation has put out to graze. It is likely that their voracious appetite for our leftovers and offcuts was the reason why humans first domesticated pigs, and for centuries they helped to make sure that little went to waste. In the last hundred years, cheap grain reduced pigs’ role as waste disposers, but it was the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK in 2001 that led to swill kicking the bucket.


Swill out

In the wake of the epidemic, which paralysed the British countryside, cost billions and led to a cull of perhaps as many as 10m animals, enquiries tentatively traced its source back to an intensive pig farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland – although suspicions remained that the disease may have been present in the sheep population for months before. The cause, according to the then Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, was the pigs illegally being fed unprocessed swill containing contaminated meat from restaurants.

The result was a complete ban on the use of catering waste in swill. It started out as a temporary measure but is now enshrined in European law and incorporated into law in England through animal by-products regulations made in 2003 and 2011. That was the end of pig buckets in kitchens – but the impact was far wider. Lack of clarity about the law has resulted in a big decline in the safe and legal use of other food waste as pig feed – despite some notable exceptions, such as one major supermarket diverting all its bread waste for animal feed.

Most pigs today eat feed made primarily from crops like soya, maize and wheat, which has a range of lamentable consequences:

  • It’s expensive, and increased costs seem to be one of the reasons why the number of pigs being farmed in the UK has decreased dramatically, from 8.1 million in 1998 to 4.8 million in 2007. We now import 60% of our pork.
  • It also means that those crops aren’t available for humans to eat: the United Nations estimates that if farmers around the world fed their livestock on agricultural by-products and the food that we currently waste, it would save enough grain to feed an extra three billion people.
  • Much of Europe’s livestock feed is made of soy and other cereal crops grown in South America where additional land is being cleared – including precious Amazonian rainforest. European imports of soymeal increased by almost 3 million tonnes in the two years following the pigswill ban.
  • The food waste that might have been eaten by pigs is instead being disposed of. If it ends up in landfill, it produces methane as it rots, contributing to global warming.
  • Disposing of food waste costs its producers money. The UK formerly had successful pig swill businesses, that were paid a small amount to take food away, and after treating it to make sure it was safe, were able to sell it on to farmers at up to £160/tonne. Now food waste costs farms far more, with conventional grain coming in at around £400/tonne.


Where there’s a swill…

Who would have thought that how we feed pigs could have such widespread ramifications? The case for feeding non-ruminants on food waste that they can safely eat seems obvious – but someone needs to make it. That’s where The Pig Idea comes in. As campaign coordinator for the initiative, it’s my job to try to demonstrate that, so long as it’s done properly, it’s safe and healthy to put food waste back on the menu for British pigs.

We’re doing it by raising eight pigs at Stepney City Farm, on a diet of food waste that is entirely legal under the current legislation. They’re tucking into a tofu by-product called okara; brewers’ grain, whey, and off-cuts from fruit and veg supplier. Each company that supplies food to Stepney has to be registered, and has to track and log its food waste to demonstrate that there is no cross-contamination with animal byproducts. All this is absolutely legal, and the food doesn’t even need to be processed.


Pig and carrot

As happy as a pig in… food waste. Photo courtesy of The Pig Idea


They say the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the same is perhaps true of pigs. Some of the UK’s best known chefs will gather in Trafalgar Square on 21st November to prepare their favourite pork dishes using the meat from our little herd, as part of a free feast for thousands of members of the public. The idea is to restore public confidence in the safety of feeding surplus food to pigs, and to promote understanding of this efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly practice amongst food waste producers.

As well as highlighting what is possible within the law as it stands, we’re also lobbying for a change to European law so that pigs can return to their traditional role in managing food waste. We’re working with other NGOs to build grass-roots support and gathering signatures in support of the cause, to motivate discussions with policy makers. We have a number of high profile hambassadors backing our campaign, including – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Emma Freud, John Torode and Rosie Boycott, and are already seeing some progress.


Swine of progress?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has released a report demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of using fruit and vegetable waste for livestock feed. Similarly, a recent Defra commissioned report found the benefits of processing food waste for animal feed were comparable in value but more likely to be achieved than those of anaerobic digestion (AD).

I’m in favour of AD as a source of energy, but I believe that surplus food and food waste should be managed in line with a food waste hierarchy. Where possible, surplus food should be donated to food banks for consumption by humans. But if foods for which there is no human demand, such as bruised fruit and veg, whey, brewer’s grain, and indeed catering waste, are going to waste the first preference is for it to be used as animal feed where practicable. The animals’ manure can then be put through AD, along with any foods that aren’t suitable for animals.

One of our challenges is to make sure that the enthusiasm we’re trying to foster doesn’t get out of hand. We need to keep our message clear. The initial focus is making better use of food waste that is safe and legal to feed to animals, and providing guidance to farmers and food waste producers to make sure they understand the benefits. Once we’ve made progress with that, I want the ban on catering waste revised and lifted, to allow for the establishment of need a robustly monitored food waste industry – I don’t want to see swill being prepared in the back yard in ways that risk spreading disease.

It’s also important to be clear that, when it comes to catering waste that may contain animal byproducts, this should only be fed to omnivorous non-ruminants, such as pigs and chickens. The ban on feeding animal byproducts to ruminants such as cows and sheep (which was introduced in response to the emergence of mad cow disease) should remain in place.

As a vegan, I had to think long and hard about my involvement in the project before I joined in February, and I’m confident that from both a waste management and an animal welfare point of view The Pig Idea is the right idea. Working closely with the pigs at Stepney City Farm has been a hugely educational experience for me, and it has reinforced my conviction that, if we are going to raise animals for food, they should live well and be fed sustainably. Killing animals for meat in this country should not result in a butterfly effect that sees animals dying on the other side of the planet as their habitats are destroyed to make space to grow feed. Our reticence to make safe use of food waste as pig swill may stem from genuine concerns, but we need to recognise it as an over-reaction – and that it is time to make a change.


Edd Colbert


Edd Colbert SFT


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Siobhan Kennedy-Hall
Siobhan Kennedy-Hall

Aha, well according to DEFRA you should not feed your chickens ANYTHING out of the kitchen, including vegetable wastes, as it “might” be contaminated with meat wastes – have to say my flock of 13 hens eat whatever they are given and I have so many regular orders for their delicious and organic eggs and not one complaint or case of tummy trouble yet!

Peter Jones

Hi Siobhan,

Odd though the Defra rules on waste from the kitchen are, as I understand it this isn’t the focus for The Pig Idea. They want to focus on food wastes that are currently legal to feed to non-ruminant livestock, and then to campaign to get something of a relaxation in the rules regarding what can go in professionally treated swill. It may be best to keep your chicken feed under your hat, as it were…

Phillip Cozens
Phillip Cozens

Brilliant! Common sense. the idea of a food waste hierarchy. In an increasing number of households they don’t really have much food waste to dispose of because their two or three pet chickens undertake the traditional role of the domestic pig.