Everything you didn’t want to know about cannibal swine and trash feeding, from Mass to the UK
On a crisp fall day in 2007, a Massachusetts motorcyclist was headed home on I-93 North, enjoying the New England air, the light and sweet smell of the fallen leaves, and the coolness of the wind when something else, something awful, reportedly blew into his helmet.
As he would later recall in an online forum, “I drove right into the smell … I started to vomit and almost lost control of my bike.”
The motorcyclist wasn’t the only unfortunate commuter, or resident of Boston’s northern suburbs, to encounter said mysterious rank odor. Beginning in the mid-2000s, voices ranging from Tewksbury to Wilmington and people barreling down I-93 started complaining about a peculiar stink. Putrid enough to summon the attention of the local Board of Health and Wilmington state Rep. James Miceli, the stench reportedly caused those in the vicinity to feel a burning sensation in their nostrils.
“Our neighbors looked around their yard one recent night, convinced that something had died and was rotting,” one Tewksbury native wrote in an online community for concerned residents.
Like the opening scene in a small-town horror film, the search for the root of the smell rattled residents and led to Tewksburyodor.org, a now-defunct website that popped up in the midst of the outrage and encouraged neighbors to help track odors by reporting what they smelled, as well as when and where. Of the more than 1,000 complaints, approximately 160 described the smell as “Garbage.” A section of the site for testimonials from residents, passersby, and others who had unfortunate encounters with the stench captured the frustration of those who inhaled it on a daily basis: “Fresh air with a hint of garbage odor to it. Looks like it’s going to be a long summer,” read one comment. Another complaint noted, “Good thing we have central air.”
Eventually, some attentive locals put the pieces together. As one Tewksbury resident reported back to an informal group seeking answers: “I was just wondering if you have noticed a huge amount of garbage truck traffic.” Another local watchdog saw something similar, an “over-loaded truck” full of “garbage.”
Where was all the refuse going?
The trucks were heading to Krochmal Farm, the largest pig farm in the state and home to 1,500 oinkers as of 2015. Those shipments were their breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Before you shun or abhor garbage feeding entirely, first consider that the practice does involve reducing environmental impact by reusing food that would otherwise be tossed in a landfill. At the same time, there is a demonstrable need for robust oversight of such operations to prevent farmers from cutting corners and to prevent the spreading of disease. Especially as the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) has acknowledged in annual reports, “the livestock and poultry sector is growing by value, output, number of producers, and variety of products. Growth in the sector can be attributed to the increase in demand for local meats. Massachusetts growers have access to the Boston market, where consumers are willing to pay a premium for local products.”
According to applications to feed garbage to swine filed with the MDAR obtained for this story, Krochmal Farm gets its garbage from restaurants and other, unspecified places (Mass permits such a lack of specificity). The garbage is transported by trucks to the farm, where it is steam-cooked to kill off any bacteria that may be in the food scraps. The processed swill is then poured into vats for the pigs to consume. State law permits the practice, with MDAR charged with conducting regular inspections. Seventeen Mass farms obtained permits for the year 2015; in 2016, that number jumped to 20.
Krochmal and other farms permitted for garbage feeding did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
There is no recorded history of any significant outbreak of disease in the Commonwealth as a result of garbage feeding. However, a months-long investigation by these reporters reveals that inspections of facilities where pigs eat trash are sparse, making for conditions, along with a weak regulatory infrastructure for oversight, that could feasibly harbor infectious disease. This as the MDAR has drastically reduced its annual budget for swine garbage feeding surveillance, cutting funding from more than $43,000 in 2010 to less than $20,000 in 2014 (MDAR did not publish an annual report for 2015, and did not respond to an inquiry about current levels of swine garbage feeding surveillance funding).
As numerous outbreaks in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have shown, one weak link—a farmer who decides heating the waste isn’t worth the cost, for example—can decimate the industry across the food chain.
The feeding of garbage to swine has been regulated in Mass since 1954, a whole 26 years before the introduction of the Swine Health Protection Act established the practice on a federal level. The SHPA was passed in order to curb the risks associated with feeding raw garbage to livestock, which has caused numerous outbreaks of infectious diseases. But this kind of recycling goes back further than 1954; a survey from the 1940s found that, at the time, nearly half of all large cities fed their garbage to hogs—uncooked.
Beginning in the 1930s, academics and public officials writing in the American Journal of Public Health began sounding alarms. Trichinella spiralis, a parasite that reproduces in the small intestine, was running rampant. Studies found that nearly one in five people was infected with the disease. The main cause? Feeding garbage containing infected and undercooked pork to pigs, who are then slaughtered, turned into pork themselves, and fed to humans without being cooked enough to burn the parasite. According to the USDA, the number of human cases of Trichinosis per year in the 1940s hovered around 500. As a current USDA pamphlet on garbage feeding states, “[p]roper cooking is an insurance policy. It assures the producer, industry, and the consumer that if disease agents are brought onto a farm through food wastes, they get stopped in their tracks.”
The advent of the first federal garbage-feeding laws in 1953 quickened the eradication process, reducing cases of Trichinosis to the remarkably low numbers we see today; between 2008 and 2012, there was a median of just 15 cases per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Across the pond though, beginning in early 2001, the UK saw a devastating outbreak of fatal (for animals) and fast-spreading Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) originating from a farm that fed uncooked garbage to its pigs. A 2002 BBC News article described the aftermath akin to that of the Black Death: “As the disease took hold, it brought burning pyres, disposal pits and the virtual closure of the countryside.” All sheep within 3 kilometers of an infected pig were killed. An estimated 80,000 to 93,000 animals per week were slaughtered; four million over a period of just six months.
In the US, the majority of states permit the feeding of garbage to pigs in some form or another. Most allow the feeding of waste containing both animal byproducts and vegetables. Pre-plate vegetable waste—corn husks or carrot peels, for example—don’t meet the legal definition of “garbage,” and therefore aren’t typically subject to cooking requirements. Many states—South Carolina, Idaho and Vermont among them—allow the feeding of garbage containing vegetables, but not meat, to swine, believing that the risk of spreading disease is too high to be worth it. Taking it one step further, Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Wisconsin have in place a full ban on feeding any kind of waste to swine.
“Garbage feeding is very high risk with regards to disease control,” according to Jim Watson, DVM, state veterinarian for the Mississippi Board of Animal Health. In response to questions about why garbage feeding is banned in his state, Watson continued, “If the garbage includes meat scraps and isn’t cooked thoroughly, organisms that cause disease can survive and infect pigs.” The threat of an epidemic is judged to be so serious in Mississippi, he says, that officials even “routinely monitor restaurants to make sure they are not leaving garbage out to be picked up by swine producers.” Added Watson, “[W]e have not discovered a violation in over 15 years.”
While Mass struggles to regulate farms with only five inspectors for the whole state, North Dakota, at the other extreme, banned garbage feeding in 1943—a full 37 years before the Swine Health Protection Act. Beth W. Carlson, DVM, the deputy state veterinarian with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture’s Animal Health Division, said her agency has “particular concern that [FMD] could be introduced to the United States through garbage feeding of illegally imported food, as the FMD virus can remain viable in meat products for long periods of time.”
HOOK-UP TO COOK-UP
The modern production of meat is hardly a vision of cleanliness. In September 2015, Consumer Reports tested 458 pounds of beef from conventional farms and more sustainable ones, and found fecal contamination in every sample. Recent outbreaks of diseases among livestock have underscored both the fragility of the animal agriculture industry and the importance of strict adherence to regulations among farmers: In 2015, egg prices hit record highs as an avian flu outbreak ravaged chickens and hens raised on factory farms; moreover, the 2009 pandemic of the H1N1 virus known as swine flu originated from pigs in Mexico and subsequently infected humans. Researchers claim that particular H1N1 crisis proved that virus “precursor gene segments” lying dormant in pigs can mutate into new and more resistant forms and concluded: “The 2009 pandemic, though mild and apparently contained at present, could undergo further reassortment in swine and gain virulence. It is therefore important that surveillance in swine is greatly heightened.”
We looked into the implementation and regulation of garbage feeding in Mass, where surveillance of such operations has decreased of late, using public records, news reports, and interviews with experts, regulators, and farmers. What we found may cause you to never look at your bacon the same way again.
Pretend for a moment that you’re a pig farmer in the Bay State. You know that feeding your swine is necessary, yet costly. You also know that you can potentially save loads of money by cutting their feed with processed garbage—you pay nothing for the material itself and your only expense is from transporting and heating the swill, whether you do it by direct fire or steam (both of which are permissible). Whatever the cooking method, you can apply for a permit from MDAR. Just include a $20 application fee.
Soon enough, an inspector will come visit your farm to check your equipment. They will fill out a form that verifies that raw garbage isn’t in a location such that wandering pigs may feast on it. Initially, and every six months thereafter, they’ll also check off a box that confirms your heating instruments succeed in bringing the temperature of the contents of the vat up to the required 212 degrees. After you pass the inspection, your permit will be granted, and you can begin feeding garbage to hogs. This repeats annually.
Once you have your permit, you have to find a hook-up. There is currently a ban on throwing away organic food waste if your facility produces more than one ton of it per week, so schools, prisons, hospitals, and college campuses are a good place to start. UMass Medical School’s Worcester campus, for example, donates approximately “100 gallons of food waste a week” to Tyde Brook Farm in Holden, the second largest pig farm in the state. There is even a company in Mass that specializes in connecting farmers to garbage producers—a trash broker, if you will. Shipping and handling is on you, so once you find a source you’ll need a truck to haul the rubbish to your farm. Once the heap arrives, it’s poured into a large container, where you heat it either with fire or steam in order to kill off any diseases. After that, you’re free to let your pigs eat trash.
Massachusetts law calls for farms that garbage-feed to be inspected on a “semi-monthly” basis. But Katie Gronendyke, press secretary for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (which oversees MDAR), stated that inspections of garbage-feeding operations need only occur “monthly,” with so-called “cook tests” taking place “every six months.” Meanwhile, a review of inspection forms for the year 2015 obtained via a public records request found that both types of inspections occur far less frequently than is required.
To put the lack of oversight in Mass in the context of contemporary research, consider a 2010 study by the USDA’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Service at the University of Florida. An examination of garbage feeding, the report included six recommendations—most of them precautionary measures regarding swine-fed garbage, based on analysis of the nutritional value of slop and the dangers of “feeds that are too wet.” One recommendation specifically advises farmers to “[a]void trashy food waste such as might come from a restaurant.”
Enter the Steaming Tender in Palmer. According to records from MDAR, last year a neighbor accused the restaurant’s owner of housing 20 pigs who were lapping up raw garbage from the establishment. This came to the state’s attention following complaints about escaped pigs causing traffic accidents and “damage to neighboring properties.”
“There are no records of tags being issued for livestock … nor of a premises ID for this owner or property,” stated Carry Shulock-Sexton, program coordinator in MDAR’s Animal Health Division, in an email thread among MDAR officials obtained by these reporters via a public records request. In other words, the farm wasn’t even permitted to have livestock, nevermind approval to feed garbage to pigs. Contacted by these reporters for comment on the ordeal, the owner of the restaurant stated, “No. I don’t want to get involved with that.”
The federal law and analogous state laws are rather strict about feeding garbage to swine. The only circumstance in which one is allowed to feed uncooked waste to pigs is if table scraps are produced and fed to pigs on the same property. Participating states coordinate with the USDA with the goal of providing effective co-enforcement in order to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Whereas states with departments of agriculture deemed too small or ineffectual to ensure strict regulation—as required under the Swine Health Protection Act of 1980—must partner with the USDA, states which are determined by the USDA to adequately oversee garbage-feeding operations within their jurisdiction are permitted to enforce the regulations without assistance from the feds. Despite funding challenges in Mass, the MDAR falls in the latter category, and handles oversight itself.
Notwithstanding the clear-cut guidelines, MDAR chose not to sanction any of the farmers who have violated the law since 2010 by feeding garbage to their pigs without a permit. Instead, the department simply mailed out a letter to seven of the eight violators reminding them that they are required to secure a permit before garbage-feeding. According to an emailed response from Katie Gronendyke, press secretary for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, to several questions about regulation of the practice in the state: Upon discovering that a farmer has violated the strict stipulations, “[Commonwealth officials] would issue an order to cease and desist to the owner, and may condemn the swine (preventing them from being sent to slaughter), which would be a financial loss to the owner. Any subsequent violation of the statute, regulation, and order to cease and desist would result in the issuance of fines and condemnation of the swine.”
In the Palmer case, Gronendyke said, “[T]here was no formal enforcement action taken. [The Steaming Tender owner] claimed ignorance of the law, and the inspector felt confident after explaining the requirements to him that he understood and would no longer be feeding garbage to his pigs.”
With just 18 employees in MDAR’s Division of Animal Health—only five of which sport the title “animal health inspector”—this small agency is responsible for ensuring that every garbage-feeding operation in Mass follows the risk mitigation measures necessary to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. This would mean that they inspect all 20 facilities every two weeks, which is improbable since there are so few inspectors. State funding for MDAR has been on a roller-coaster ride over the past decade, while the seemingly low-priority swine garbage-feeding surveillance program has been slashed in half.
As a result of the apparent lack of priority on checking up on trash feeders, inspections are few and far between, according to forms furnished by MDAR for the year 2015. The most frequently inspected farm was visited just 10 times all last year—less than half the number of inspections required by law. Moreover, inspectors rarely tested the cooking equipment to ensure that the element reaches the required temperature of 212 degrees fahrenheit; the majority of farms inspected in 2015 were allowed a free pass—“no cook test today”—with a reference to a satisfactory evaluation allegedly performed in December of 2014. An email from Gronendyke, the EEA press secretary, stated that cook tests are conducted “every 6 months.” This despite the USDA noting that “not cooking the product to the proper temperature” and “not cooking the product for the appropriate length of time” are violations of the Swine Health Protection Act.
Dr. Paul Walker is a professor at Illinois State University’s Department of Agriculture, where he coordinates the school’s Swine Waste Economical and Environmental Treatment Alternatives team. He also literally helped write the book on garbage feeding. Asked about the lax enforcement in Mass, Walker noted: “[A]ll producers ought to follow the requirements and regulations to help ensure a safe and wholesome food supply.” Without knowing the regulatory specifics that apply here, the professor said all farmers “should follow the law.”
The drastic reduction in livestock disease—such as that seen in the United States—can backfire. A pamphlet provided to these reporters in response to a public records request submitted to MDAR seeking training documents for inspecting waste-feeding farms warns that despite “history show[ing] that animal disease can happen anywhere, anytime … [w]hen years go by without a disease outbreak, waste feeders often trust their feed sources and may feel cooking is unnecessary.”
Some states are extremely strict about these laws. One Missouri farmer discovered that merely picking vegetables grown on their property and feeding them to pigs is illegal in the state. Elsewhere in the world, the 2001 outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth Disease in Great Britain was a devastating reality check for garbage feeders. The nightmare originated with a single farmer feeding untreated waste to his hogs and resulted in the slaughter of millions of pigs. Estimates of the cost of the outbreak, which prompted the European Union to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for garbage feeding, ran upwards of $18 billion. Not long after that outbreak and cases of African Swine Fever in Eastern Europe later the same decade, the United Nations warned that “[o]n any farm with high biosecurity, swill feeding should be forbidden.”
The damage to the industry in Europe was extraordinary enough to spur states like Texas to tighten their restrictions. According to documents provided by the USDA, Texas was the state with the third-highest number of licensed garbage feeders in the country, with a grand total of 202 in 2015. Last year, due to concerns about a potential outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth Disease, Texas banned the feeding of waste containing meat but continues to allow farmers to feed “vegetable, fruit, dairy, or baked goods waste” once they secure a permit to do so, according to a study produced by a partnership between the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the Food Recovery Project, and University of Arkansas’ School of Law.
Though not exactly an agricultural powerhouse, USDA numbers show that with 20 trash feeders, Mass has more such operations than most states. The extent that the practice is allowed here surprised Matt Randall of Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which permits a grand total of three farms for garbage feeding. Asked about the Bay State’s lack of oversight, Randall suggested that sparse inspections may prevent a “higher level of briefing,” while acknowledging that garbage feeders may be motivated to recycle and reuse food waste.
On the dining end of things, Joshua Smith, owner of Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions in Waltham prefers “complete transparency.” Known for his inventive cooking processes and eye for responsibly farmed cuts, the chef stated he would stop using garbage-fed pigs if he found out a supplier engaged in the practice and would adamantly support a labelling initiative.
While people in the food business think about these things, the rest of us often turn away from inconvenient truths about our food, health, and environment—and we rarely think about whether state and federal departments are prepared to stem the kind of outbreak that occurred in England.
In an emailed response to questions about the potential impact of an outbreak in the US, a public affairs person from the USDA offered little comfort, writing, “A foreign animal disease outbreak in the US, depending on the disease, the severity of spread, the length of the outbreak, the length of time till recovery, could have devastating impacts to the swine industry and other livestock industries as well.”
They added, “For most emergency outbreaks, [the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA] is able to use flexibilities within the structure of its appropriated funding to devote roughly $5 million to respond to unplanned outbreaks of pests and diseases each year.” Furthermore, the Secretary of Agriculture “has the authority to borrow up to $30 billion from the Treasury at any one time.” Even with those resources, if an outbreak occurred on the scale seen in the UK in 2001, the USDA would struggle to squash it.
Offering even less assurance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that swine flu pandemic and the “[r]eassortment of influenza viruses can result in abrupt, major changes in influenza viruses, also known as ‘antigenic shift.’” “When shift happens,” according to the agency, “most people have little or no protection against the new influenza virus that results.”
With the administration of President-elect Donald Trump likely to roll regulations and federal assistance back to last century, we’ll have to close our eyes and hope that shift doesn’t happen. In Mass or anyplace else.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.