Wasted opportunity or waste of time?

Jane Jordan reports on a special round table debate, organised by Pig World and sponsored by MSD Animal Health, that brought representatives from the pig industry, feed processors and environmental organisations together with Pig Idea founder and environmental campaigner Tristram Stuart to ask the question: Should the EU ban on swill feeding be lifted?

During the past decade of inflated cereal and soya prices and increasing pressure to find alternative feed sources, the UK’s innovative, consumer-driven pig industry has never considered the reintroduction of swill feeding.

The risks are just too high, as demonstrated 13 years ago when one farm made the mistake of feeding illegal food waste to pigs. The subsequent foot-and-mouth (FMD) crisis killed more than 10 million farm animals and brought the UK livestock industry to its knees.

Lessons were learned from FMD in 2001. Since then, animal health and disease control regulations have been reinforced and health protection and biosecurity are now fundamental requirements for all businesses involved in livestock and meat production. Farmers, feed producers, smallholders/hobbyists, hauliers, markets, abattoirs, processors, in fact any person and/or

business involved with livestock is bound by law – and moral obligation – to abide by stringent protocols to prevent the risk of contracting and transmitting disease, notifiable or otherwise.

For the pig industry, maintaining health status is a serious matter. It’s a primary concern and its diligence has enabled it to re-establish a lucrative and valuable international market for breeding stock and genetics, and to grow its export trade for British pigmeat products.

For individual pig businesses, herd health is perhaps the most important factor influencing productivity and profit potential. The investment in managing herd health and preventing disease is considerable, which is backed up by a dedicated veterinary sector and technically led allied animal health industry.

MSD’s pig business has grown considerably during the past two years, with an expanding portfolio of porcine products and services. The company invested £4.25 billion on research and development during 2013, and some of that was targeted at finding effective health solutions to the increasing challenges faced by the pig industry.

An alarming plan
Safeguarding health status is paramount and the risk of contracting disease must be minimised at every level. So, when the much-publicised, celebrity-endorsed Pig Idea began to promote a concept where pigs offered a solution to society’s food waste issues that could also help reduce agriculture’s drain on valuable resources and important ecology, alarm bells started ringing.

The NPA, backed by industry and other livestock organisations, swiftly mounted a clear and resolute counter campaign: pigs were not society’s dustbins and swill feeding was absolutely not on.

But the debate has raised some interesting ideas that warrant further consideration. With this in mind, and pig health remaining the priority, Pig World, together with sponsor MSD Animal Health, brought together representatives from all sides of the argument to answer the key question: Should the EU ban on swill feeding be lifted?

Chaired by BPEX’s Mick Sloyan, the meeting proved vibrant and thought provoking for all sides. All agreed that using additional sources of permissible food waste to feed pigs was possible and should be explored.

However, the products must be 100% guaranteed safe; present zero risk to human, pig or livestock health; be of a consistent nutritional value; and be competitively priced to merit inclusion in today’s, high-spec, fully traceable pig diets.

Asked by the NPA’s Lizzie Press to define exactly which sources of food waste he was referring to, food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart of The Pig Idea stated that he wasn’t advocating utilising catering waste unless it had been collected from a strictly controlled source.

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A solution for society and the soya situation

Opening the debate, Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal and founder of the Feed the 5,000 campaign (The Pig Idea is part of this organisation that aims to empower and inspire the global community to enact positive solutions to the global issue of food waste), pushed the concept that pigs could use more of society’s discarded food. He maintained that food safety and pig health were paramount, and believed strategies could be engineered to guarantee both if the pig industry, Government and environmentalists worked together.

“We have to look at how we grow food on a global scale, and if there are ways we can reduce its impact on the global environment and its contribution to climate change,” he said. “This is something so vitally important in sustaining the long-term health of our food supply.”

Mr Stuart felt that modern pig farming was actually a complete reversal of why pigs had been domesticated in the first place. They were originally kept to increase the net availability of food by recycling food waste.

“The logic of pig farming has been turned on its head on a global scale,” he said. “Now we use land to grow crops specifically to feed pigs, which is a net loss to global food supplies. By feeding more waste to pigs, we could reverse this trend, save money, increase food supplies and reduce the environmental impact of farming.”

The panel agreed with some of Mr Stuart’s theories, but firmly opposed the use of waste that contained meat or meat-derived products.

Recycling this grade of food waste presented many risks, and not just to the pig sector. A notifiable disease, such as foot-and-mouth disease, had the potential to decimate the entire livestock industry, and the pig sector wasn’t willing to carry this responsibility.

Even if a process was developed that could manufacture swill into a safe feed ingredient, there were still no guarantees that livestock farmers would purchase it. Issues such as traceability, feeding values, compliance with quality-assurance schemes and welfare codes would influence producer decisions.

The economics would also have to stack up, in terms of pig productivity and the cost of feed formulation. Would this material, once processed, be competitively priced; would it have adequate nutritional value; could it sustain pig performance at a level that was profitable? Furthermore, who would pay for the capital cost of the required feed delivery system?

Sustainable substitution
“Within the law more could be done now to enable more permissible food waste to be used for feeding pigs,” Mr Stuart said. “Where we disagree is how much further this can be taken. Revising the current legislation to allow more food waste, including that containing animal by-products, presents a massive opportunity to reduce environmental impacts of food production on a global scale.”

By allowing producers access to processed animal-derived by-products and/or swill via a change in legislation, producers could reduce their feed costs as these products are protein-rich and a far cheaper alternative to soya. It also offered significant environmental benefits – particularly with respect to deforestation in South America where most of the world’s soya was grown, he added.

However, pig producer, feed processor and former swill feeder John Rigby disagreed. He said soya was a highly valued feed ingredient and livestock farmers had few alternatives offering the same nutritional quality and assurance. His own experience had demonstrated that swill was a very variable commodity, with an inconsistent nutritional value.

He said swill had been a cheap and useful food source in the past, but at a time when pigmeat quality and animal performance were less important. As genotypes improved and became leaner and more efficient, his rations relied on the inclusion of more soya, rapeseed meal and other proteins to produce the balanced diets needed to sustain growth and performance.

“The swill itself never replaced the use of these proteins as it was supplemented with soya, and we became even more reliant on soya when meat and bone meal (MBM) was banned in the wake of BSE in the 1990s,” Mr Rigby said. “So, I don’t think feeding swill has all the answers here and it won’t save the rainforest.”

The NPA’s acting general manager, Lizzie Press, supported this point, saying China purchased more than a million tonnes of soya each week and it was unlikely a change in UK protein-sourcing policies alone would make any realistic global difference.

The EU currently used 40 million tonnes of soya to feed livestock and a cross-state ruling to allow the reintroduction of animal-derived proteins and by-products might offer some potential to alter global market demand. However, any alternative protein source had to be totally safe, fully traceable and of a consistently good quality to make it a nutritionally valuable and cost-effective option.

The NPA didn’t believe a mechanism capable of producing such a feed ingredient from waste food could be employed effectively across all 28-member states, Miss Press added. Would the process and regulations be robust enough to guarantee 100% assurance against a potential notifiable disease outbreak?

“Food waste is society’s problem, not the pig sector’s,” she said. “Our industry should not be expected to provide a short-term solution, where the risk and responsibility is so unbalanced. We just don’t believe a control system could be put in place that’s robust enough to prevent contamination; there’s too much room for error, and the risks far outweigh the benefits.”

Mr Stuart said a key objective of The Pig Idea was to promote discussion into finding a feasible and robust solution – one that would protect livestock health, reduce feed costs and help the environment. What he envisaged was centralised, fully regulated food waste recycling centres that could “manufacture” food waste to approved safety and quality standards and produce a totally safe nutritionally valuable livestock feed ingredient. In addition, as a solution to the pig industry’s significant disease concerns, Mr Stuart suggested strict movement regimes could be applied to units feeding swill.

BQP production manager Howard Revell, for one, felt this didn’t take disease risk out of the equation. Notifiable diseases were a current and continual threat to the UK pig industry, so why heighten that by allowing the reintroduction of animal by-products as feed ingredients?

He believed it would be very difficult for any process or protocol to be 100% failsafe, whereas if it’s not permitted the risk of such a disease outbreak is significantly reduced.

“Everyone here agrees that the pig industry could use more non-meat food waste, and I fully support finding ways for our industry to access more of the permitted food stuffs already available,” he said. “But feeding meat back to pigs presents too many risks and that’s the nub of the whole issue. It’s like playing Russian roulette; lose and there’s no second chance.”

Although science had demonstrated that ultra-heat treatment and further processing could deactivate most of the viral pathogens known to survive in meat, there remained a significant and real threat from new and emerging disease.

Consultant vet Mark White MRCVS, representing the Pig Veterinary Society, cited current thinking on the transmission of PEDv in North America, where it was thought that the disease has been transmitted via blood plasma in feed supplements. A number of cases in Canada have been linked to US outbreaks through a porcine plasma product.

“Nobody thought PED would present a risk coming through plasma, but somehow the processing system has broken down and appears to have allowed it through,” he said. “And as we’re dealing with a new virus, little if any work has been done on how we might inactivate it. This is a serious disease threat.”

Speaking as an industry observer, Simon Aumônier, a partner with Environmental Resource Management, said he appreciated how challenging it was to sell a concept that increased the potential risk of disease to a livestock sector currently protected from that risk by legislation.

“It’s very difficult to expect an industry that’s not exposed to a certain risk to take it on, no matter how small that risk might be or what benefits in terms of cost and/or environmental benefits, it might offer,” he said.

Mr Aumônier felt that market demand would ultimately decide if feeding swill-type waste to pigs was a viable option. The decision rested on two key questions: was there a need for this type of feed product; and would farmers gain any value by using it?

It would be difficult to persuade allied businesses and investors to lobby for a change in the law unless there was some “user” pressure to drive this concept, he said. Consumer/retail attitudes to feeding swill-grade waste to livestock must also be considered. Would it be acceptable or would it alter purchasing habits?

Nutritional expectations
Pigs are excellent food processors, capable of turning 2.3kg of feed into 1.0kg of lean meat if they’re allowed to express their genetic potential (BPEX Figures for top 10% of rearing and finishing Sept 2013). However, to optimise growth rate, sustain performance and yield a lean, high-quality carcase, pigs must receive a good-quality, nutritionally balanced diet specifically formulated to match the nutritional requirements of high-performance genotypes.

By its nature, food waste/swill is a variable commodity of inconsistent nutritional value. Even if it were permitted, ration formulators would find it a challenging ingredient to use.

Apart from basic nutrient values, such as energy, fat, fibre and protein, nutritionists must consider what other micronutrients may be present. Trace elements, vitamins, acidity, and anti-nutritive factors can and do affect digestibility and the pigs’ ability to absorb and metabolise specific nutrients.

Human food supplements and additives such as spices, salts, plant proteins and the many synthetic nutrients that are used in processed convenience food products could have significant implications for pig nutrition, gut function and the animals’ health and well being.

Ricardo Neto MRCVS, a vet and technical manager at MSD Animal Health, said such issues might be considered a welfare issue.

“From a veterinary perspective, the level of inconsistency associated with this kind of feed would be unacceptable. Animals have a right to received a balanced diet, so feeding a sub-optimal one could raise concerns,” he added.

Pig producers are continually challenged to improve efficiency and reduce costs, but it’s not easy to find competitively priced rations that are capable of maintaining performance and production targets.

Oxfordshire pig producer Tom Allen uses a selection of co-products to feed his finishing herd. Pigs are liquid fed from 15kg liveweight using diets that contain a range of former foodstuffs such as potato waste and brewers’ grains. These components are less expensive than many other raw materials, but consistency can be a problem and that can affect pig performance. Using swill-type ingredients to feed pigs would present similar challenges.

“My current issue is product availability,” he said. “Some co-products, such as whey, just don’t reach the pig market any more, so there are fewer resources available and the market is becoming more competitive – prices are rising.

“And consistency is a major problem; one load may have a dry matter of 20%, the next may be 10%. This makes it difficult to manage our nutrition strategy.”

Mr Allen’s rations were continually reviewed to ensure his pigs received what they needed to grow and perform well, but this added to formulation costs. In simple terms, herds that use co-products need to produce low-cost diets so the savings made to feed costs can offset any potential loss from reduced performance.

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Eco incentives divert valuable resources

The UK pig and poultry sector could use more former foodstuffs if supplies could be diverted from anaerobic digestion (AD) schemes. A huge proportion of legally permitted food waste was currently being sent for AD due to eco-linked disposal schemes and green tax incentives. Yet Tristram Stuart said this was not necessarily the most environmentally or efficient way of processing this material.

Feeding livestock more of this waste had the potential to further reduce carbon footprints and ease pressure on valuable resources. And it could be achieved if there was better organisation and a more strategic method of sorting waste and directing it to specific markets.

“The huge amount of legally permissible waste food being sent for AD needs to be addressed,” he added. “Although AD is more environmentally favourable than sending it to landfill, it’s not the most efficient disposal option. This waste is far more valuable as livestock feed.”

The panel agreed, and said that differentiating permissible food waste offered the potential to “add value” to what was essentially a problem product. This might appeal to retail/food service businesses, although implementing a system to identify and segregate food stuffs from general waste would require trained manpower and some form of regulation and therefore investment. However, the procurement director at SugaRich, Paul Featherstone, asserted that retailers would soon realise such former foodstuffs had a value and would maximise their revenue accordingly.

Simon Aumônier said that an infrastructure was already emerging because of society’s growing commitment to anaerobic digestion. This process was favoured by retailers and other large-scale food businesses as a viable disposal route for food waste and other organic materials because it was cost-effective and offered green credentials. Even so, this process didn’t bring the same sustainability advantages that could be achieved by recovering the nutritional value of this waste and then feeding it to livestock.

“You could say the pig industry is losing out on a good opportunity because of what is currently being encouraged with AD schemes,” he said. “The driver for AD is renewable energy, because the businesses that are providing this regulated waste management and disposal service to retailers are connected to power generation initiatives. They’re not aware of any other market for some of the food waste they process.”

Differentiation not digestion
Paul Featherstone said he would welcome the opportunity to purchase more former foodstuffs. Demand was strong, yet current environmental policies were creating difficulties for companies like his to gain more access to legally permitted food waste.

He said anaerobic digestion was seen as the simplest and most effective green option for many firms because logistically it works. Developing new methods to deal with certain former foods was a viable option, but it would require substantial investment and a commitment from feed processors and farmers to drive this kind of incentive.

Mr Featherstone also highlighted the difficulties his business and others like him had securing supplies of permitted food waste. The pet trade was a fierce competitor, and because it operated in a high-value, premium consumer market, these businesses could afford to pay more for their raw materials. Feed processors and farmers were often priced out of the market.

John Rigby agreed and said a two-tier marketing strategy, where food waste was graded and then targeted at specific markets, would increase opportunities for food processing companies and pig producers that manufactured their own diets.

The pet food sector can use products that are not permitted in livestock diets, such as MBM and animal-derived fats and proteins. It might also be in a better position to use an ingredient such as swill, he added.

“Surely it makes more sense for farmers to be given priority with permissible wastes because it would help reduce the costs of meat production,” Mr Rigby said. “In turn, this benefits the economics of the supply chain, including the price paid by consumers.

“There are many ingredients livestock producers cannot use, whereas the pet food industry can. The pig sector should be raising awareness of these issues.”

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MSD is a global healthcare leader and its MSD Animal Health division provides vets, farmers, pet owners and governments with one of the widest ranges of veterinary pharmaceuticals, vaccines and health management solutions and services. Dedicated to preserving and improving the health, wellbeing and performance of animals, MSD Animal Health invests extensively in dynamic and comprehensive research and development and a modern, global supply chain. The company is present in more than 50 countries, while its products are available in some 150 markets. For more information visit: www.msd-animal-health.com

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