Feeding scraps is no solution to food waste

By Andrew Heck

Waste not, want not

Food scraps from grocery stores, restaurants and home kitchens are sometimes fed to pigs, but it is time to stop the practice.

Food waste is a growing concern for social, financial and environmental reasons. The biggest wasters of food in the western world, by a wide margin, are grocery stores, restaurants and consumers. As food security, affordability and eco-consciousness are thrust into the spotlight, agri-food value chain stakeholders are looking for solutions to address the problem. One such outlet for retail food waste today is the distribution of human food scraps as livestock feed.

Across Canada, some livestock producers have been taking an interest in food redistribution initiatives by accepting packages of organic goods from grocery stores and restaurants, which includes items like fresh produce, baked goods, dairy and deli products, which may or may not include meat. Once these items are past their ‘saleable’ condition, they are sometimes loosely sorted, then bagged, boxed and sold or donated to be fed to animals, including livestock and pets.

Fido may have no problem munching on a discarded pork bone, but pigs on-farm certainly should not do the same. While food waste redistribution seems like an easy and efficient manner of disposing waste, concerns have been raised by some commercial hog producers and food safety officials who fear the potentially negative consequences of some farmers’ misguided good intentions.

Feeding scraps compromises food safety

Trichinella worms can spread to domestic pigs through contaminated soil. When domestic pigs are raised outdoors, there is greater potential for cross-contamination.

For consumers, personal and family well-being is utmost. In years gone by, the industry has been faced with a dark legacy of battling Trichinosis – the parasitic disease that can infect humans, spread between mammals, including pigs, that consume animal flesh or feces hosting Trichinella worms. When undercooked Trichinella-infected meat is eaten by humans, the results can be deadly.

The commercial pork industry has been successfully free of Trichinosis for more than three decades, but some skeptical consumers still hesitate to eat pork unless it is cooked beyond all recognition – if they are comfortable eating it at all. While cooking pork past 160 degrees Fahrenheit is almost completely unnecessary for food safety reasons, even today, the parasite still does exist in some populations of wild carnivores and omnivores, like coyotes and bears. Thankfully, it has not re-emerged in the commercial industry, which produces the vast majority of meat consumed in Canada. But could feeding scraps contribute to a resurgence of Trichinosis or similar parasites and viruses?

The most recent occurrence of Trichinosis in Canadian swine occurred in January 2013 in a pig raised on a non-commercial farm. The animal was slaughtered and consumed on-farm, and no product entered the food system. However, as many non-commercial pig owners raise and feed animals outdoors, cross-contamination is possible between infected wildlife and the soil where pigs walk and eat. By placing heaps of food scraps on the ground for rooting, parasites and viruses are invited to be ingested. `

“Heat treatment is the best means of removing potential pathogens and increasing stability and shelf life of a product,” said Theresa Fritz, Communications Officer, Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). “Products that are dried are also less likely to harbour microbial contaminants.”

Trichinosis is perhaps the most foreboding and dangerous threat for consumers; however, other foodborne illnesses are also worth noting in the context of food scraps especially.

Almost routinely, we are made aware of recalls on fresh produce related to E. coli and salmonella contamination. Such recalls are a testament to the work of CFIA to keep food safe for Canadian consumers. When these contaminated products make their way into the human food chain either through home or restaurant consumption, illness often follows for those who have eaten them. Illness can also result, similarly, when animals are fed these contaminated products.

Bacteria like E. coli and salmonella are destroyed when cooked to a certain temperature. However, much fresh produce is consumed raw, and scraps used by farmers to feed animals may or may not have been cooked in advance. Certainly, waste containing items like lettuce, onions and most fruits are not cooked prior to distribution from a grocery store or restaurant, and if a farmer fails to thoroughly cook these items before to feeding them to animals, the cycle of contamination can be perpetuated.

Feeding scraps lacks animal health benefits

Feeding food scraps may result in poor pig development or disease issues.

In Canada, it is illegal to feed meat to livestock. And while many plant-based and dairy products from the human food chain, known as ‘recycled food products’ (RFPs), are legal to feed, they require regulatory clearance, and regulatory clearance alone does not mean such products benefit livestock nutritionally.

“RFP guidance was developed approximately 20 years ago in response to growing requests for these waste products to be recognized as safe feed ingredients,” said Fritz. “Companies were looking for innovative ways to divert waste from landfills and address escalating landfill costs by repurposing some products that could be useful. All ingredients to be utilized as livestock feed must undergo a pre-market assessment.”

The CFIA is responsible for regulating RFPs in Canada. RFPs that are exempt from the Feeds Act and Regulations are still subject to the Health of Animals Regulations. RFPs fed to pigs must also be registered as a feed or listed in Schedule IV or V of the Feeds Regulations. Commercially produced RFPs that meet acceptable standards are considered safe for livestock, but this is likely not the case with grocery and restaurant scraps.

When it comes to scraps that have skirted the approval process, it is possible at least some of the items included in an unsorted mixture are not allowed to be fed to livestock.

“RFPs from a restaurant or grocery store are likely to involve many more people and therefore more chance for error,” said Fritz. “Each person needs to be made aware of what the requirements are: no meat, keep it clean, don’t add in other types of waste and so on. There needs to be some awareness that these waste products are no longer ‘garbage’ but are becoming a feed ingredient that becomes part of the human food chain.”

Like human diets, proper pig diets include a balance of water, carbohydrates, fats, amino acids, minerals and vitamins. Complete feed rations should be considered in consultation with an animal nutritionist, who will most likely recommend a diet heavy on grains, pulses and oilseeds that provide an effective nutritional balance to enhance pigs’ average daily gain and overall physical well-being. Some human foods, such as pitted fruits, vegetables from the nightshade family, tree nuts and chocolate are even toxic for pigs.

By introducing ingredients like food scraps into pigs’ diets, farmers may be unknowingly weakening the health of their pigs, lowering the quality of their animals’ meat and potentially jeopardizing the commercial pork industry that is worth $24 billion annually to the Canadian economy.

Feeding scraps destabilizes the pork industry

Food scraps from restaurants in Russia are considered responsible for African Swine Fever’s (ASF) spread to China in 2018. Could the same happen in Canada? Image © Marcus Wong

For the Canadian pork industry today, perhaps the most troubling consequence of feeding scraps is the potential for spreading African Swine Fever (ASF) – a disease that has a near-complete mortality rate for pigs it infects, prompting the culling of entire herds where infected individuals are found.

In 2018, ASF spread through domestic pig herds in China almost overnight after food scraps shipped from Russia (where ASF has been known to exist for more than a decade) were fed to pigs by farmers looking for a cheap source of pig sustenance. As a result, feeding food waste to pigs is now illegal in China.

“Producers, including small-scale producers, as well as people who keep pigs as pets, are reminded that ASF could be introduced to pig herds through contaminated food waste,” said Fritz. “In the rare event that a food item is contaminated with even a trace amount of the virus, it would be harmless to humans but could still infect pigs.”

While ASF is the single-greatest disease risk to the pork industry today, the disease does not impact human health. Nevertheless, its presence could compromise long-standing international trade relationships, as recently observed with the discovery of the disease in Germany, whose pork exports are now banned in 14 countries worldwide. Canada exports 63 per cent of the pork produced from more than 20 million pigs slaughtered annually. Should Canada be faced with a similar situation, the country would immediately lose access to many global customers, spelling financial ruin.

The voluntary, producer-driven Canadian Quality Assurance (CQA) and Canadian Pork Excellence (CPE) programs provide guidelines for feeding pigs, which include the strict control and monitoring of diet, for pig health and meat quality. All commercial producers in Canada – those who sell pigs to federally inspected abattoirs, which sell their meat into grocery stores and international markets – are certified under these programs.

While commercial producers do not feed scraps, when non-commercial producers engage in the practice, it has the potential to damage the reputation of our products and could raise questions from important trade partners about the status of our industry.

Striking a balance between efficiency and safety

For producers and consumers alike, there is an ongoing desire to balance food system efficiency with food safety. While the goal is noble, we should sometimes step back and consider the implications of decisions such as feeding human food scraps to pigs.

While pigs could eat most things found in a load of scraps, it does not necessarily mean they should. The associated risks with feeding scraps often outweigh the benefits for the broader industry.

Before anyone considers feeding food scraps to pigs, CFIA recommends contacting the closest animal health office, located across the country, to ensure compliance with all federal feed and health regulations.