Waste to worth: Japan has the ultimate model for managing surplus food to feed

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/GCShutter
© GettyImages/GCShutter

Related tags Food waste Sustainability Dairy Japan

Japan is a pioneer in the food waste to animal feed production process, says Dr Jerry Shurson, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota.

He is a leading authority on harnessing valuable nutrients from byproducts generated by the grain milling, meat packing, and milk processing industries for feed.

“In Japan, more than 70% of food waste undergoes recycling, repurposing, and management with a focus on feed safety, reintegrated into animal feed. The country wants to reduce its dependence on imported feed by maximizing domestic resources,” Dr Shurson told FeedNavigator.

Citrus cull: Fueling sustainable milk

Dr Shurson recently led a virtual international conference ​aimed at educating and engaging professionals in the global feed and animal protein industries about the pivotal role of food waste in addressing challenges related to food security, climate, and sustainability. During the online event, speakers, including global and regional experts on food waste and utilization, shared insights and best practices.

In one case study, Dr Linda Baker and Dr Joseph Bender from the University of Pennsylvania outlined their study focused on upcycling culled citrus fruit via dairy cattle and how such an approach can support sustainable production.

Fruit deemed unacceptable for consumers was used in the study.

Fresh citrus waste from a fruit processing center was incorporated into an experimental diet, fed to 160 cows for 24 days at a research dairy facility, and comparisons were drawn with a control diet. Additionally, at a commercial dairy farm, fresh citrus waste was co-ensiled with grass hay to prevent spoilage and preserve the feeding value, with the resulting silage subsequently incorporated into diet and fed to lactating cows. Both feeding trials supported cow productivity and lowered feed cost, while the GHG emission mitigation and resource co-benefits were also meaningful.

Legislation introduced in 2007 in Japan made recycling food waste into animal feed a priority compared with other potential uses. A major impetus for this law was to help the livestock and poultry industries become more self-sufficient and less reliant on imported feed grains. In 2019, about 6% of total concentrate feed production in Japan was derived from food waste, reports Dr Shurson and his co-authors in a peer reviewed paper​.

That review, executed in collaboration with Ellen Dierenfeld from the WWF and Dr Zhengxia Dou, professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, highlighted the pioneering efforts in Japan as well as in South Korea, and Taiwan as regards this issue.

Those nations have comprehensive laws, regulations, economic incentives, subsidies, and infrastructure in place to mandate the collection, recycling, and conversion of various food waste sources into safe animal feed. Substantial investments in infrastructure ensures effective thermal processing for controlling microbial contaminants, notes the experts. The mandatory heat treatment of collected food waste in those countries has proven exceptionally successful in preventing disease outbreaks associated with feeding animals, demonstrating its efficacy over the past two decades.

In addition, despite challenges such as the African swine fever virus outbreak, China is showing promising signs with new governmental initiatives aimed at developing guidelines, infrastructure, and processes to divert a sizable portion of its annual 350 million tons of food waste toward producing safe animal feed.

“In China, there is a noticeable uptick in interest regarding the integration of food waste into feed, supported by the Ministry of Agriculture. Again, this movement appears to be fueled by a desire for increased self-sufficiency,” remarks Dr Shurson.

At last month's virtual event​, Dr Yingcheng Wang, postdoctoral fellow, China Agriculture University, Beijing, spoke about how JiaBoWen (BGB) is upcycling restaurant food waste to feed in China. The company has three production facilities in Shanghai, Beijing and Xinjiang, each boasting processing capacity of 400 tons per day. 

US and US obstacles to upcycling food waste to feed 

Many countries in the EU, as well as the US have some of the highest rates of food loss and waste in the world but recycle a small fraction into animal feeds, according to the academic.

In the US alone, food waste accounts for an estimated 30 to 40% of the food supply, as per USDA data.

Federal and state laws in the US dictate the regulations and permissible types of food waste for animal consumption. While adherence to federal guidelines is mandatory, compliance with state regulations is also necessary. “But the inconsistency and variability in state-level regulations pose significant challenges and act as major hurdles to widespread adoption of food waste recycling into animal feed across the country,” Dr Shurson tells us.

Each state holds jurisdiction over additional animal feed laws beyond federal mandates, resulting in diverse regulations even among neighboring states. This diversity encompasses factors such as the type of food waste allowed (plant- versus animal-based), thermal processing requirements, and the prohibition of certain animal species for food waste feeding.

“Businesses within the feed industry find it arduous to navigate these variable requirements on both regional and national scales,” he adds.

Furthermore, ongoing concerns regarding the potential transmission of foreign animal diseases, such as ASF, through the feeding of specific sources of animal-based food waste to pigs, may lead to further restrictions in some states, he says.

“Among all countries and regions globally, EU regulations stand out as the most stringent though,” comments Dr Shurson.

A study by Boumans et al ​noted that only an estimated 5% of the 100 million tons of food loss and waste generated in the EU is currently utilized in animal feed. This limited utilization can be primarily attributed to historical instances of disease outbreaks within the EU, which have underscored the cautious approach taken towards integrating food loss and waste into feed.

Need to re-evaluate existing laws and regulations

Authorities in the US and the EU need to re-evaluate existing laws and regulations that are prohibiting or severely restricting greater upcycling of food waste into animal feed by considering the trade-offs between potential feed safety risk and the urgent need to reduce the environmental footprint of the global food system, argues Dr Shurson.

“Let's reevaluate our approach, considering the latest scientific insights. While we may retain some existing regulations, it's essential to adopt a more comprehensive perspective. Driven by the pressing climate and environmental challenges we face; we need to be more discerning in determining which food waste streams are deemed acceptable from a feed safety standpoint. We should strive to maximize the utilization of safe and viable food waste resources that may currently be underutilized."

This approach aligns with the need to address both the environmental crisis and ensure feed safety, he stresses.

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