Feeding food surplus to pigs safely: a win for farmers and the environment?

Pigs have the potential to turn a massive food waste problem into a tasty solution. However, feeding food waste to pigs is currently banned in the UK, after illegal practices by a farmer in the ‘90s lead to the disastrous effects of Foot and Mouth Disease.

Feedback’s The Pig Idea are campaigning to reintroduce food waste feed to pigs in the UK, to potentially make a use for 2.5 million tonnes of wasted food a year.

There are still some questions about how it would work, especially in organic farming, but it’s clear that The Pig Idea has the potential to make a huge difference to waste, pig welfare, and the environment. Karen Luyckx from The Pig Idea explains more in this guest blog. We’re interested to hear what you, our customers think; you can give your feedback in the short survey linked below.

Photo Credit – Chris King Photography / The Pig Idea

For thousands of years, humans have fed pigs on food waste. Pigs were domesticated to be the original recycling banks – or “piggy banks” – enthusiastically eating food that was inedible to humans and converting it into edible food in the form of pork. But omnivorous livestock like poultry and pigs are now primarily fed on crops like soy, rapeseed, wheat and barley using up valuable land and resources.

I’ve lived and worked for six years in Bolivia and seen with my own eyes the devastation done by large-scale soya farming in the Amazon. It’s heart-breaking to see such unparalleled biodiversity turned into a green desert of soy monoculture as far as the eye can see.

Photo credit – Adriano Gambarini / WWF Brazil.

The UK imports 2.5 million tonnes of soy a year mostly for use in livestock. Even though the industry is busily looking for more eco-friendly replacements, the total volume of soy imports keeps rising year on year, with the great majority still coming from South America and organic soy from as far as China.

Soy is needed in pig and chicken diets because of it offers high quality plant proteins necessary for omnivorous animals fed on plant-based feed only. Meat-containing leftovers were banned for all livestock, regardless of these being herbivores or omnivores, after a farmer illegally fed untreated food waste to pigs and caused the disastrous Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001.

But we now have the opportunity and the evidence to revisit safe, economically and environmentally attractive ways to reintroduce the use of food surplus as feed. In the same way that we should cook chicken properly to make sure it is safe and avoid raw chicken juice getting onto our plates, we will need to cook the surplus food to kill off disease and then make sure we store and transport it safely. Japan already does this in modern treatment plants. Please see the REFRESH expert report for more information on the safety measures.

Surplus food treatment plant in Japan

Feeding more food waste to pigs and chickens could yield substantial benefits. If the whole of Europe were to feed heat-treated surplus food to pigs at the same rate as is currently done in Japan, we could save global agricultural land equal to the size of Wales, including hundreds of thousands of acres of South America’s biodiverse forests and savannahs.

And the United Nations estimates that if farmers all around the world fed their livestock on the food we currently waste and on agricultural by-products, enough grain would be liberated to feed an extra three billion people, more than the additional number expected to be sharing our planet by 2050.

For the UK, Feedback has calculated that about 2.5 million tonnes of food that currently goes to waste could be used to feed pigs and chickens, that’s about 20% of the UK’s total food waste.

Current feed costs – representing over 60% of total production cost of pork – are a nightmare for farmers. At the same time, in Japan, surplus food to feed treatment plants produce feed at half the cost of conventional feed. Reducing feed costs may support farmers’ livelihoods and help increase investment in animal welfare.

This pig has just enjoyed an exciting whey and veggie leftover porridge (currently allowed). Photo by Feedback.

Looking at the science, we also know that deficiencies in certain types of protein may exacerbate tail and ear biting in pigs. While tail biting is caused by a combination of factors, replacing conventional feed with heat-treated leftovers that contain meat may contribute to a reduction in tail biting, allowing pigs to return to the type of diet they have evolved to eat as omnivores.

This is why Feedback calls on the UK to lift the current ban on using catering waste and food surplus, from retail and manufacturing, as feed for omnivorous non-ruminant livestock, such as pigs and chickens. We propose that this ban is replaced with robust legislation regulating the treatment of this surplus food in off-farm licensed processing facilities so that it is safe.

Read our report to find out more about why feeding leftovers to pigs and chickens is safe and why it is a win-win for farmers and the environment. We also hope it is a win for people who love a tasty sausage or pork chop but worry about the impact conventional livestock production has on the environment, but we would love to hear what you think.

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43 responses to “Feeding food surplus to pigs safely: a win for farmers and the environment?

  1. Barbara Rhodes

    I remember the ban coming in very well. At the time, I was working at a commercial dairy, and our milk waste/surplus was picked up regularly by ‘the pig man’. The ban on feeding waste was a knee jerk reaction to what was said at the time to be meat infected with foot & mouth from a discarded ham sandwich which had been eaten by pigs. The law of unintended consequences meant that, at a stroke, almost the entire food industry could no longer get rid of surplus and waste by the normal route, into animal feed. This still causes food waste issues today.
    If food can be treated so it is guaranteed to be free of any pathogens, I think Feedback is a splendid idea. Feeding waste food to animals is currently limited to bakery goods etc and subject to strict regulation. Time for a change on environmental grounds alone.

  2. I remember the pig swill bins for our uneaten/leftover dinners at my Grammar school in the 1950s. This is a practical use of food waste from the past that should definitely be reintroduced, with the measures suggested to make it safe

  3. It can only be a good thing. My grandfather used to quote this little rhyme about waste and pigs, it’s a bit of doggerel but actually to the point.

    “Dear beloved brethren, is it not a sin
    To peel your potatoes and throw away the skin?
    The skin feeds the pigs, the pigs feed you –
    Dear beloved brethren, is this not true?”

  4. NO! NO! NO!
    The flaw in all these arguments is that before possibly the 1950s, few or no chemicals were added to our food. The amounts added today are horrendous. The pigs cannot get rid of the chemicals that will accumulate in their bodies, then they will be eaten by man! Awful idea. Everything needs to be produced organically and kindly with care. No spraying with pesticides which causes endless different types of cancer. Poor pigs will have all these chemicals fed to them. Organic meat must be fed organically. I probably feed my dogs better than some people feed their families. I even make their biscuits out of good organic bread.

  5. In principle I agree and love the idea of pigs and chickens being fed on tasty organic produce. However my worry is that unless we are sure where the food has come from we don’t know what chemicals have been used in its production. I well remember as a child on holiday at a relatives farm taking the swill van down to the local ‘posh’ hotel to pick up the scraps and then the smell as Uncle Billy would prepare the scraps for the pigs. They loved it!!

    • Hello Sarah,
      Yes I also have experienced pigs eating swill, they love it. But man has to be responsible enough not to feed them food which is unsuitable. The reason is that most companies only care about profit and not the environment!

  6. Michelle Bohlaender

    I agree with the commentator who has pointed out the high levels of dangerous chemicals required to process this food waste fodder. Pigs will effectively be fed ‘processed food’ which lately, humans have been advised not to eat in order to stave off a vast range of illnesses & obesity in particular, due to the slew of ill-advised additives like corn syrup or viral-feeding egg yolks used in rich restaurant foods & sandwich fillings that this ‘food waste fodder’will contain. Further, current food trends are promoting diets that include more fruit & veg prepped from scratch, vegetarianism & veganism as the healthiest, most environmentally sustainable diets for humans to eat & who truly don’t require the vast amounts of flesh protein currently being consumed globally. But this article seems to imply that humans do actually need flesh-based protein to maintain good health & that Veganism etc is a load of bollocks. It’s implying also, that pork from animals fed on food waste, will be the cheapest form of that vital flesh protein needed to feed ballooning populations cheaply, post-2050. While that might be true, according to this article I’m clearly labouring under the misapprehension that vegetarianism & Veganism is the way to a sustainable environment & healthier human populations.

    • On the point of chemical use, Feedback also campaigns for a more sustainable, chemical-free global food system: https://feedbackglobal.org/building-better-food-system/ but while we try to fundraise to do more, we do not want to stop our work on the huge environmental impact of animal feed.
      Organic farmers pay astronomical prices for organic soy, which comes from as far as China, but delivers essential proteins to their pigs and chickens. In the meantime, even leftovers from Riverford’s wonderful organic Field Kitchen are prohibited to feed to pigs or chickens. So much good food is wasted.
      On p. 21 of the https://feedbackglobal.org/pigs-uk-policy-report/ you can see how sending leftovers to pig feed is preferred to anaerobic digestion – where most food leftovers currently go – in terms of the release of carcinogens, heavy metals and other eco-toxins.

  7. Hello, Karen here, author of the blog. Thank you for the important points made in your comments. On the veggie / vegan question, this is our view: We believe farm animals can play a role in a sustainable and fair food system, especially in local self-sustaining agro-forestry farms, where they soak up surplus, make the most efficient use of leftovers, or make the most of land that can only be used for pasture, and produce manure for the farming, energy production, etc. We envision a food system where meat and animal-based products are eaten on very special occasions only, and for those who need it in small portions for health reasons. On page 23 of the full report (https://feedbackglobal.org/pigs-uk-policy-report/) there is more information on the need to significantly reduce our meat consumption, but also consumption of sugar-rich and processed foods, not just for our own health but because of the environmental impacts of these foods.

  8. On the presence of chemicals in food: it is paramount that we keep campaigning for a sustainable and healthy global food system, without additives, pesticides, herbicides etc. See our model here: https://feedbackglobal.org/building-better-food-system/
    While fundraising to campaign on this, we continue to look at the terrifying environmental impact of livestock feed production. Organic pig and chicken farmers are under enormous pressure due to the shortage and astronomical prices of organic soya which is needed in their feed rations for the essential types of protein, and often comes from as far as China.
    Meanwhile so much food goes to waste, including organically grown and minimally processed food. For example any leftovers from the wonderful Riverford Field Kitchen are prohibited from being fed to pigs. Also, have a look on page 21 of the report (https://feedbackglobal.org/pigs-uk-policy-report/) at the wider environmental impact of anaerobic digestion (where food leftovers currently go) in terms of carcinogens, heavy metals and other eco-toxins. So we agree with you but think it is a question of adding all our different angles on the problem and solutions together into one big better future.

  9. On the point of chemical use, Feedback also campaigns for a more sustainable, chemical-free global food system: https://feedbackglobal.org/building-better-food-system/ but while we try to fundraise to do more, we do not want to stop our work on the huge environmental impact of animal feed.
    Organic farmers pay astronomical prices for organic soy, which comes from as far as China, but delivers essential proteins to their pigs and chickens. In the meantime, even leftovers from Riverford’s wonderful organic Field Kitchen are prohibited to feed to pigs or chickens. So much good food is wasted.
    On p. 21 of the https://feedbackglobal.org/pigs-uk-policy-report/ you can see how sending leftovers to pig feed is preferred to anaerobic digestion – where most food leftovers currently go – in terms of the release of carcinogens, heavy metals and other eco-toxins.

    • Karen, if all food producers were like Riverford there would not be a problem, which is the reason that I buy all my vegetables and some meat from them. I do shop from other organic places but they do not deliver. I am afraid that money and greed get in the way of some businesses, not following the rules.
      For these reasons we have Bird Flu, contaminated meat getting into the human food chain, Jacob’s disease from beef and so on. How are you going to prevent the chemicals, especially really bad pesticides, being eaten by the pigs and then concentrated in their bodies, and then people like ourselves eating the resulting flesh. I think we should go further back give help to have more farming like Riverford , and somehow get rid of some of the worst chemical companies

  10. Thank you Karen, for the comment about how meat could contribute to sustainable food supplies. Over the last 12 months I have significantly reduced my meat and dairy consumption and take a similar approach, being selective when I decide to eat meat.
    However, I do still feel conflicted about cultivating and using life for food. Are there any studies that consider how agriculture could look if animals weren’t part of the commercial process of food development?

    • Hi Jennifer, wise girl, I agree with you. I eat meat but only from very few sources. I never even let my dogs drink puddle water in a field if I think the field has been sprayed!

  11. Hi Jennifer, you could look into the agro-forestry approach. https://www.agroforestry.co.uk/ for a very low input system where you could probably be ok without manure. But we would still see pigs as excellent recyclers and food waste converters…

    • Pigs under normal and natural circumstances are good recyclers, but not with the awful state of food today. Remember the cheaper the food product usually the more rubbish it contains! I class chemicals as rubbish, and that is the reason that so many people are either vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, fructose free, I was surprised to learn that fructose is now a manufactured product, again instead of being natursl.

  12. The issue of chemicals; we also campaign for a low-impact, chemical-free global food system: https://feedbackglobal.org/building-better-food-system/ but while we try to fundraise to do more, we do not want to stop our work on the huge environmental impact of animal feed.
    Organic farmers pay astronomical prices for organic soy, which comes from as far as China, but delivers essential proteins to their pigs and chickens. In the meantime, even leftovers from Riverford’s wonderful organic Field Kitchen are prohibited to feed to pigs or chickens. So much good food is wasted.
    On p. 21 of the https://feedbackglobal.org/pigs-uk-policy-report/ you can see how sending leftovers to pig feed is preferred to anaerobic digestion – where most food leftovers currently go – in terms of the release of carcinogens, heavy metals and other eco-toxins.

  13. Regarding chemicals, on p. 21 https://feedbackglobal.org/pigs-uk-policy-report/ you can see how feeding leftovers to pigs is preferred to anaerobic digestion – where most food leftovers currently go – in terms of the release of carcinogens, heavy metals and other eco-toxins into the wider environment.
    We also campaign for a low-impact, chemical-free global food system: https://feedbackglobal.org/building-better-food-system/ but while we try to fundraise to do more, we do not want to stop our work on the huge environmental impact of animal feed.
    Organic farmers pay astronomical prices for organic soy, which comes from as far as China, but delivers essential proteins to their pigs and chickens. In the meantime, even leftovers from Riverford’s wonderful organic Field Kitchen are prohibited to feed to pigs or chickens. So much good food is wasted.

  14. Please also have a look at p.21 of our research report, see link in Karen’s post above, for the advantages of reducing release of chemical contaminants into the wider environment when you send leftovers to pigs instead of anaerobic digestion.

    Feedback also advocates for a more sustainable, chemical free way of growing food globally: https://feedbackglobal.org/building-better-food-system/ but need to get more funds for this. In the meantime, we want to continue campaigning on the huge environmental impact of animal feed.

    Organic soy for chicken and pig feed is extremely expensive, sometimes even coming from Asia. But farmers need it because pigs need the particular proteins provided by the soya (as meat has been taken out of their diet). At the same time, the law prohibits feeding pigs with leftovers, even organic and high quality from places such as from Riverford’s amazing Field Kitchen. Of course the good food should go to people first, but if that is not possible, pigs are the best option and they love eating our leftovers.

    • I would not disagree with the pigs eating Riverfords leftovers! Unfortunately there are not enough Riverfords, to balance out all the chemical and other rubbish that is added to most food products. Some chemicals can accumulate in the pig’s body, not all pass through. the same with humans of course. And then we are going to eat this already contaminated fresh meat, I think not. I personally would educate people to eat less, supermarkets not to persuade people to buy too much. And to serve less in supermarket restaurants. I am appalled at the amount of food wasted on all day breakfasts for example

  15. Judy Beveridge

    I think it’s a great idea! I’ve read all the comments about only feeding them from organic food waste and yes that is exactly what would have to be done in order to produce organic pork. I think to insist that all pigs only eat organic is being idealistic. Which is better- organic imported grain and an unnatural veggie diet or the food waste idea? Which would the pigs choose? Pigs love pig swill!

  16. Gabriele Sanger-Stevens

    Sounds like a very sensible idea and eminently desirable given the food wastage and the rain forest destruction. If organic food waste can be economically separated from ‘ordinary’ food waste then yes, go for it. If it can be produced in the UK economically and save all that transport mileage, even better.

  17. I fully support the idea of reintroducing the Pig Man to collect food waste to be treated and be fed to pigs. During the war years and beyond it was the norm and pigs were healthy, and the meat was most flavoursome. This has a double whammy with waste food being put to good use, a saving in massive imports being used, environmentally friendly etc. Modern chemicals used in food production and farming should be considered and dealt with appropriately. I enjoy eating meat very much and have always purchased good quality pork and other meats and am healthy and very active for my age.

    • Hear Hear!

    • Hello Wendy,
      You are obviously in my age group! I agree with your memories of the war years . My mother use to send me to the pig bin, with our waste! Just possible to remember. The trouble is that our food is not the same now as it was then,
      I worked in the chemical industry for a number of years, and you would not believe the preservatives and other synthetic chemicals that go in our food now. The heat treatment of waste food may get rid of bacteria, but not the chemical content!

      • Yes, I agree with your comments regarding chemicals used in todays food.
        I have never bought processed meals, grow most of our own vegetables etc. Our meat comes from a high class local butcher who rears its own meat.
        I suppose I would be considered old fashioned today as I make all of our meals from scratch, bake bread weekly etc. My husband is 87 and still very fit and well and active. Likewise I am healthy too!

        • Hello Wendy,
          We do not grow our own veg, all of it comes from Riverford. Years ago my doctor discovered that I was allergic to the antibiotics in farmed chickens and Turkeys. I hatch and grow my own chickens and ducks, we ‘select the best and eat the rest’ The best are for show and Sale. Pork and Beef like you I only buy from Organic places or very good sources.

  18. I agree that it is a win win, and should be put into practice. I would prefer that processed foods are not fed to livestock though. The feeding of bread to waterfowl for instance can effect growth, would this be the case with feeding food like left over sandwiches and pizzas to pigs? I don’t know. Whole food waste would be my preference. I look forward to seeing more about this topic in the future.

  19. A lot of the food waste I see in retail contains PORK. Why has this not been mentioned? Feeding pork to pigs is not a good idea. Remember B.S.E?
    How would this be prevented?

    • Christina, I agree with you completely. Are we never going to learn? I am surprised that Riverford ever got mixed up in anything like this

  20. Maybe Riverford are actually the ideal people to be supporting this idea. I am unable at the moment to compost my vegetable waste (by which I mean the peelings, ends of carrots etc), and as this is all organic, I would be so happy to see this fed to pigs. Currently it just goes into my council green waste bin. Just suppose that when Riverford delivered my veg box, they collected a sealed box of vegetable waste to take back to the pigs on their farm? I would think those customers who are willing to take part in the scheme, are probably all conscientious enough to make sure that only good organic waste goes back to the pigs.
    They might not have the permissions to do this currently, but it’s an idea. I don’t know how many customers Riverford have, but it might just be enough to have the vegetable waste to feed their own pigs. A small scale farming project, but then they tend to be the best kind. Wouldn’t it be nice to order the pork that you knew you had helped nurture in a healthy organic way? I’d have a celebratory sausage party!

    • Yes Kate, I would certainly support that idea, if Riverford were allowed to do that. But that is a big IF.
      The only snag for me is that my dogs eat most of our veg bits. We have just had to pick our Gooseberries as the dogs were helping themselves, they are also eating the inmature apples that are falling! Perhaps others who have dogs should feed them home scraps! but I think that the main culprits for waste food are fast food restaurants and supermarket ca.fes

  21. I wish it to be published. I did click the stars.

  22. Peter Manfield

    This is an excellent idea until you start thinking about how it will be implemented. The WW2 idea of having a Pig fed by scraps from the local community would work today, but only because of the scale and the fact that the food would be hand sorted by those who would benefit from consuming the pig. But when scaled up it would become impossible to keep the food free of contaminants, not just from the food but from packaging, especially plastic. The trouble is that the nature of food waste has completely changed now compared to the 50’s and the very sad fact is that most of it isn’t even suitable for the pigs !!!

  23. When I was a girl my uncle had pigs and all the scraps from our house and the new bouts were collected together and fed to the pigs and hens and each year a pig was buchered and they all had some to eat and the hens thee same and it didnt hurt any of us because it was the way to feed your stock

  24. Peter Parkinson

    Pigs were always down the back of small holding and fed waste food during and after the war. I like pigs but not to keen on pork sooner buy beef bacon an sausages, theirs not much choice about today a lot of pork from Germany, its way they cook the pork, when I went to Germany all we got pork.

    I have print 3 pigs in a trough on my kitchen wall by Ian Nathan the original was competly damaged in an arson attack on my home in 2011. If want you a copy email me you can see a copy https://www.flickr.com/photos/peter_parkinson/3023595916/in/album-72157625367321733/

  25. Could we not just stop eating pork and eats plants instead? That way we wouldn’t have to kill any pigs and we’d get our protein direct from the source.

  26. Well done Matt! My own previous response apparently got blocked. There are many reasons for choosing to grow and consume plants rather than feeding them to pigs and then eating those, and one of them is our own health: the World Health Organisation puts processed meat such as ham and bacon in the category of definite carcinogens, together with tobacco and asbestos (and other red meat, including pork, are ranked as probable carcinogens). There is plenty of evidence that pork contributes heavily to cardiovascular problems (the number one killer in the world) and associated diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, etc.

  27. I love the idea in theory. However it is a traditional practice that worked brilliantly when other traditional practices were in place alongside. Would it work with the ‘quality’ of modern day, mass produced, chemical laden food?

    If only we could go back to smaller scale, where ‘the pig man’ would know what his pigs were being fed on… Veg peelings, etc, brilliant!

    Piglet to fatten in one’s own garden, anyone?

  28. Wrong on many levels with the amount of crap that is in food – for an organic producer this would be almost impossible with the gmo issue – we rear hundreds of organic pigs and do not feed soya or palm kernel – peas and lupins work really well – stop over producing food that is being wasted…

  29. Ghislaine Coulon

    Hi, my reservations on this scheme is that nowadays most food waste is from the agro-chemical industry. including restaurants, with toxic chemicals and GMOs that I have tried to stay clear of for health reasons, as all these chemicals the animals ingest make the meat unsuitable for my health (autoimmune disorders triggered mainly by long term consumption of agro-chemical supermarket food)). If organic pork were fed organic food waste only I would not have a problem with it at all…but how would it be policed and checked ? I am more worried about those chemicals entering the food chain than anything else. The foot and mouth outbreak had been given more than the reason mentioned in your argument, some contaminated imports were also mentioned…it is all about good husbandry after all and the agro chemical route is not in my opinion, this is why I switched to certified organic food. I would not consume eco-pork fed on agro-chemical food waste.

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