African swine fever (ASF) doesn’t pick favorites. This deadly virus impacts both small and large pig operations alike. When ASF first hit China last August, the initial cases reported were in smaller, backyard operations.
Experts say there are several reasons why the small- to mid-size producers are at greatest risk. In addition to less intensive biosecurity practices, these operations also tend to be located at the outer rings of large cities. Swill feeding, also referred to as garbage feeding, includes feeding meat-containing plate waste versus recycled bakery products or other non-meat containing food waste. This practice holds appeal for some smaller producers in China to recycle food waste and uncooked restaurant leftovers that are readily available.
However, swill feeding is of increasing concern and is likely the exposure route for the ASF cases reported near Beijing. ASF is a highly resistant virus that needs to be cooked at 150 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes to be deactivated in meat products. Although current U.S. regulations require producers who feed plate waste to cook it to 212 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes prior to feeding.
“I understand the appeal, especially for the smaller, niche producer,” says Neal Benjamin, DVM, with Carthage Vet Clinic. “Nevertheless, pigs are omnivores and are well adapted for excellent growth and performance on a large variety of non-swill diets. There is no justification in my opinion to continue the practice of swill feeding given the risks involved.”
Although lower feed prices and the concept of recycling food waste is appealing, Benjamin says the environmental and economic costs of an ASF outbreak would quickly cancel out any benefit.
Still, Benjamin says convincing hog farmers in China that swill feeding poses an ASF risk will be a challenge as long as there is economic incentive to do so.
“China is a very dynamic country – I think it’s unwise to underestimate their ability to adapt to new problems,” he says. “Nonetheless, despite almost unfathomable sustained economic development over the past few decades, there are still many small backyard producers who continue to swill feed. Overall their regulatory agencies are still less mature than in the U.S. or European Union and it’s a very large country both geographically and demographically. Changing traditional ways of doing things is a challenge in any country, including the U.S.”
A swill feeding snapshot in the U.S.
Benjamin says it has been estimated that there are licensed swill feeders in 20 U.S. states and the practice is legal in 28 states. Regulations around swill feeding have traditionally been left up to the states to enforce in the U.S.
The Swine Health Protection Act regulates food waste containing any meat products fed to swine. Compliance with this act ensures that all food waste fed to swine is properly treated to kill disease organisms.
Although U.S. regulations would likely prevent spread of diseases like ASF (which has not been discovered in the U.S. at this time) if followed properly, in practice it’s difficult for government officials to monitor swill feeding operations 100% of the time to ensure proper compliance and make sure there is no cross-contamination between cooked and uncooked swill.
“I think the most expedient solution would be for individual states to enforce local bans on swill feeding,” he says. “Important pork-producing states such as Iowa have seen the dangers associated with feeding meat-containing plate waste and have already outlawed the practice.”
While the federal government regulates the practice, regulatory agencies have been reticent to enact an outright ban, Benjamin says.
“It would only require one improperly prepared batch of swill containing an infected piece of meat to cause a devastating outbreak of African Swine fever in this country,” Benjamin says.