Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 20, 1988
Pigging out
Trash-to-swine disposal is more than just hogwash.

BELLEPLAIN, N.J. - Frank Germanio arrived with the second course of the day's menu before the patrons had finished the first course: eggplant and a steamed stew of leftover prison food.

He tilted the scoop of a front-end loader and sent one ton of slightly fermented Philadelphia soft pretzels tumbling onto the backs of the pigs. "Later on, we'll give them a truckload of cucumbers," he said.

It was not an attractive sight - ripe pretzels, vegetables and the homogeneous mush from Leesburg State Prison - all being unceremoniously mashed by the hooves of some very hungry hogs. The swine, however, grunted with delight.

Call it what you will - swill, slop, edible plate waste or a balanced porcine diet. Germanio's 300 adult pigs in Cape May County are a key link in the state's recycling effort, as are the hogs of 47 other licensed food-waste feeders in New Jersey.

According to state estimates, New Jersey pigs consume 1,500 tons of garbage a week - about the same as a small trash-to-steam plant. Much of it comes from Philadelphia, which has contracted with about 20 pig farmers, who collect an estimated 30,000 tons of garbage a year.

"Altogether, it's a complete recycling program," said Veronica Polen, a Deptford hog producer who is vice president of the New Jersey Board of Agriculture and president of the New Jersey Livestock Association. "We're taking waste and making it into protein. What's left over is manure, and we plow that into the fields."

Still, swine consume only a fraction of the total food waste, which makes up between 8 percent and 10 percent of the total municipal trash volume. Most of the food waste ends up in landfills, where it decays and becomes one of the main contributors to the production of dangerous methane gas.

With trash-disposal costs skyrocketing and mandatory recycling ordinances becoming the order of the day, waste-disposal experts are developing an interest in the age-old practice of slopping hogs.

A Rutgers University study published this summer in a recycling journal, Biocycle, recommended that the state collect food waste in North Jersey, which has an abundance of garbage, and truck it to South Jersey, which has an abundance of hogs. The study estimated that South Jersey pig farmers could use 600 more tons of garbage a week.

But the state is unlikely to endorse the system. "I don't know realistically if it will happen," said Aletha Spang, director of the state's office of recycling. She said other types of waste take priority for recycling.

And in Philadelphia, one of the few remaining municipalities where residents need only call the division of sanitation to be placed on a farmer's garbage pickup route, a dwindling number of people separate their food waste.

"The sanitation department never does any publicity for the program," said Robert Young, director of planning for Philadelphia's office of recycling. "It's probably one of the most underutilized services in the city."

Rather than promoting it, officials sound as though they are forecasting the end of garbage-feeding.

"Of all the agricultural industries that really have their backs to the wall, the food-waste feeders are in the worst shape," said Donn A. Derr, an associate professor of agricultural marketing who headed the Rutgers study.

"Something soon is going to have to be done to help those people, or there's not going to be many of them left," he said.

A number of forces are working against trash-to-swine operations.

For one thing, the farmers are under siege from encroaching suburban dwellers, who do not appreciate the aroma of swine. Many towns have banned pig farms.

In Pennsylvania, only eight licensed food-waste feeders remain from what was once a large industry. "Land values and housing developments just swallowed them up," said John Cable, the chief of sheep, swine and horse health for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Another impediment is the quality of modern household garbage - it's not fit for swine.

"The problem with a lot of the garbage is that so much plastic is mixed in," said Frank Germanio's father, Bernard, who has raised hogs for most of his 74 years. "Nobody does any real cooking any more. Everybody buys prepared food that comes in a plastic tray or something."

Perhaps the most persistent problem is the image of garbage-fed pork as unclean, a perception the farmers loudly decry.

Garbage-feeders and grain-feeders feud about the quality of their products, basically over the argument that pigs are what they eat.

Farmers such as Bernard and Frank Germanio say swine are naturally carnivorous. If they are fed only grain, Bernard Germanio says, pigs become cannibalistically crazy. A garbage-fed pig does not attack its own litter, he said. They are more "peppy and lively."

In addition, he said, his pigs taste better. Garbage-feeders repeatedly refer to a study the New Jersey Department of Agriculture conducted about 20 years ago in which blindfolded consumers declared a clear preference for the taste of garbage-fed pork.

"Grain-fed pork tastes like cardboard," said Bernard Germanio.

The purveyors of grain-fed pork say that is hogwash.

"I don't know if garbage-fed pork tastes better," said Jerry Clemens, who buys 3,800 grain-fed pigs a day for Hatfield Quality Meats Inc. in Montgomery County, the largest packinghouse in the area. "I wouldn't want to eat one."

Clemens said garbage-fed pork has a "greasy, oily type of finish. Your corn-fed animal, the color of the meat is light pink and firm. A garbage-fed product doesn't firm up, even if you put it in the freezer. It stays soft and mushy."

Even if it's tastier and mushier, nobody accuses garbage-fed pork of being unhealthy.

Under the federal Swine Health Protection Act, garbage feeders are required to cook any waste that contains meat. The cooking is not required to protect humans from the pork, but to protect the pigs from hog cholera and vesicular exanthema, either of which can decimate a herd in a matter of days.

To cook the four tons of kitchen trimmings and plate waste they collect each day at Leesburg State Prison, the Germanios use a garbage truck that is sort of a mobile crock pot. They connect the battered truck to a boiler on the farm and pump steam through vented tubes inside the truck for an hour. When it is cooking, the truck is engulfed in vapor.

Most of the food waste requires no cooking. It comes in by the truckload - fruit, vegetables and baked goods - either too ripe or too much for market.

At one time, Bernard Germanio collected 35 tons of garbage a day in shore neighborhoods to feed 2,000 Yorkshire-Landrace hogs. For the last two years, however, he has switched most of his production to roasters, the young pigs that end up with apples in their mouths on banquet centerpieces. The piglets command a higher price and are not yet weaned. The garbage gets fed to 300 sows.

Polen, who raises about 2,000 hogs, said she could easily raise more. Demand for pork has been increasing because of the National Pork Council's campaign to promote "the other white meat." An adult pig may eat 30 pounds of waste a day. Polen's problem is that she cannot get enough quality food waste.

Pig farmers do not want any old garbage, she said. "Whatever a human can eat, a hog can eat because their digestive systems are almost the same," she said. "That means they should get a balanced diet.

"For example, somebody called up last week with a truckload of onions. I wouldn't take them unless I had something else to mix in with it. I wouldn't want to eat a meal consisting only of onions, and neither would my animals. There's not that much nutritional value there."

Other wastes are highly desired. Farmers clamor for the trimmings from fish packers, which are low in fat, high in protein and produce muscular swine. "The bacon will retain some of the fishy flavor, if they're fed too much," Polen said.

The mainstay for most pig farms is bakery waste, the excess dough or baked goods that have been sent back from stores after the expiration date. High in carbohydrates, bakery waste fattens a hog quickly.

In recent months, however, pig farmers have been competing with animal-feed suppliers for bakery waste. Because of the drought, grain prices have shot up, and feed suppliers have turned to bakery waste. They dry the waste and grind it to be served to cattle and chickens.

"This happens every time grain prices go up," Bernard Germanio said.

Fortunately, pigs will eat about anything.

Polen's hogs consume a fair amount of milk, cottage cheese and yogurt that is either outdated or rejected at the dairy by inspectors because it contains a high level of animal antibiotics.

The Germanio pigs, on the other hand, are not fond of dairy products. His shed contains tons of surplus powdered milk, honey and cheese that the government could not give away. "I get a lot of calls from dairies, but the pigs just don't seem to care for it," he said.

The Germanio shed contains about 200 tons of stockpiled food, delivered now and then by producers who have a surplus. They pay the Germanios $300 to empty a truckload, far less than a landfill would charge. The shed is also full of bags of rancid flour, boxes of aged tortilla chips and even birdseed, which has been returned from grocery stores because it passed its expiration date. A platoon of cats guards the shed from rodents.

"I betcha I got 80 tons of candy in there," Bernard Germanio said. "Barrels of it. There's even Easter eggs and stuff." home page   
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