February 22, 2013

Feeding animals to animals: EU weakens rule on feeding animals to farmed fish

Dave Love

Dave Love

Assistant Scientist, Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Also contributing to this post is Jillian Fry, Project Director, Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project

In a disturbing turn, the EU has again weakened regulations addressing feeding animals to other animals, bringing their rules more in line with flawed U.S. policies. The decision, made earlier this month, revises the animal feed rule to allow swine and poultry carcasses to be fed to farm-raised fish.

After animals raised for human consumption are butchered and processed, about 40 to 50 percent of the carcasses remain—the parts of chickens, pigs, cows, fish, and other animals that are not edible by humans. These carcasses are put through a process known as rendering, which involves high heat and pressure and produces separated protein and fat materials that are used in pet food, feed for food animals, laundry and other soaps, and chemical and industrial products.

But does the way we raise food animals contaminate rendered products that are used for these purposes? Peer-reviewed research from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that poultry feather meal, used as an animal and fish feed additive, can contain potentially active levels of antimicrobial residues and other contaminants. Unfortunately, contamination of feather meal and other rendered products was not considered by the EU when changing the animal feed regulation.

The aquaculture industry is actively looking for alternatives to fish meal and fish oil, and rightfully so—harvesting wild fish to feed to farmed fish is an unsustainable practice. A handful of industry-sponsored studies have assessed whether rendered animals and agricultural commodity crops such as corn and soy can be fed to fish. These products would certainly take the pressure off the wild fish populations currently used as fish feed; fish, however, have evolved to eat diets very different than human diets, and feeding them surplus grains and remnants from the butcher’s floor seems a questionable practice.

Unfortunately, the rationale for the EU rule change is based on a narrow view of health risks, based primarily on ruling out dangers associated with mad cow disease—which does not affect pigs or chickens. For a full understanding of why the EU feed rule was created, and why it was changed this month we must go back nearly thirty years.

In 1986, livestock farmers in the United Kingdom noticed something terrifying— an epidemic that would become known around the world as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

But BSE does not only kill cattle. In 1996, doctors made the connection between human illness and eating BSE-infected beef. The human form is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), and 224 people were diagnosed between 1996 and 2011 (WHO). VCJD is always fatal, and the risks from BSE in the UK beef led to a decade-long ban on meat export. When BSE spread to cattle in North America, control measures were implemented by the USDA.

dark green = confirmed vCJD; light green = BSE

How did BSE spread so quickly through UK cattle? The disease was transmitted through feeding rendered meat and bone meal from diseased ruminants (i.e. cattle, sheep, goats) to other ruminants. Rendering is designed to kill most pathogens, but the heat used in the rendering process does not destroy prions. Prions reside primarily in the brain and spinal cord of ruminants, but are also found in other parts of the animal. By the mid-1990s the evidence was clear that feeding animals to animals, through the use of meat and bone meal, was very risky.

The European Union acted in 1997 to ban the feeding of ruminants to ruminants. These rules were strengthened in 2001 to ban the feeding of any animals to other animals intended for human food (including fish) (Rodehutscord et al., 2002) —one of the strongest demonstrations of the precautionary principle in modern agriculture policy.

But in 2008, the EU began weakening these rules to allow fish to be fed to some animals, including young ruminants with certain conditions (EC Commission Regulation No 956/2008). Now, the EU has decided to allow rendered pigs and chickens to be fed to farmed fish.

Since the rule was enacted, researchers have identified other public health risks from introducing rendered animal products in aquaculture.  Rendered animal meals can contain antibiotic residues, antibiotic resistant superbugs, and other chemicals used in animal production. These issues, in addition to mad cow disease risks, should be raised and discussed before the EU feed rule is implemented for aquaculture or future food animals.