December 3, 2014 at 8:19 am

Why Is There Fish in Pig and Poultry Feed?

straight from the farmers mouth

Straight From the Farmer’s Mouth shares stories about farming as told by farmers. Plucked from the countless blogs tirelessly kept by the people who grow and make our food, this series shows food from the other side of the table.

A Fishy Dilemma

Menhaden, anchovy, sardines, herring- all what are known as “forage fish” and form the basis of the fish food pyramid (well phyto and zoo plankton are actually the base, forage fish are the next level up). Ninety percent of these harvested species are ‘reduced’ for use as fish meal or fish oil, another few percent for bait fish, and the other small fraction is actually consumed directly by humans.


What is that fish meal and oil used for? Well some of it does make it into human supplements, like the expensive fish oil capsules you might take to increase your consumption of Omega 3 fatty acids. But the majority is used in livestock, poultry, and pet foods. Data varies, but I found that in 2009 around 24% of fish meal/oil is used in pig production and 22% in poultry production (and another 10% in pet foods). Since both pig and poultry production have jumped drammatically since in 2009, those numbers are likely higher. I would estimate around 50% of fish meal and oil is now used for pigs and poultry feed.

So I was at the Washington Tilth conference last weekend and they had a vendor expo with various non-profits, fertilizer salesman, and feed suppliers there talking up their organic and ‘sustainable’ products. One feed supplier was gloating about being an all “soy-free” animal feed company. I asked what they used instead of soy. They told me pea meal (fine) and fish meal. I asked if the fish meal came from bycatch or from the numerous fish processing facilities that exist in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. They said no, those products were not “consistent” enough, both in terms of supply and in terms of nutritional profile. That was when they told me they used wild caught menhaden as their fish meal source. That got me thinking- what is this wild caught menhaden and what does it mean for the planet to use wild fish to feed livestock?

Menhaden is comprised of 7 different species but two species (Gulf and Atlantic) dominate the commercial catch. Atlantic menhaden have been on a steep decline for decades (76% decline in last 20 years), so much so that in 2012 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) instituted the first coastal wide quotas. Before it was just regulated state by state. This new quota system seems to be working as stocks have started to rebound somewhat. The Gulf states regulate menhaden state by state and their fisheries commission (which has several companies sitting on it that make their millions from catching menhaden) say that everything is fine. Despite the huge algal blooms, high water temperatures, oil spills, and enormous fishing takes each year, they say that Gulf menhaden are doing just hunky dory. It should be pointed out that not only are menhaden essential for filtering the water (that is how they feed), they are also the critical food source for rockfish, seabass, striped bass, tuna, bluefish, osprey, and many other species. They are a keystone species.

Fish meal

So why are feed suppliers using wild caught fish meal in leiu of soybean meal? I understand that pigs and chickens are omnivores and I can appreciate that fully. I have always encouraged our pigs and chickens to go forage for whatever moves out in the pasture or woods. Insects, grubs, small amphibians, rodents, etc. are accesible to animals that get to live outside. Contrary to what some organic purists may believe, I think that organically-produced meat scraps from species other than their own should be part of their diet. Give pig heads to chickens, give chicken offal to pigs. The FDA wants those things to be cooked- that’s fine. But to send giant boats out into the ocean (our collective commons) to take wild animals that are the basis of the ocean’s food web in order to feed to land animals just because we either don’t want to feed them cooked meat scraps (or can’t according to archaic organic rules) or because we think that feeding the legume soy to animals is for some reason wrong just seems absolutely criminal to me. We are also giving fish meal/oil to livestock to boost their omega 3 fatty acid profile (anyone ever bought “Omega 3” enriched eggs) even though we all know that animals that consume more pasture and nuts (especially with pigs) will naturally have higher levels of Omega 3s. If we just let animals do what nature intended, there would be no need to supplement with fish products.

So because a growing number of people think they are allergic to soy (even though less than .2% of the population has a bonafide soy allergy) we are now pillaging the oceans to obtain fish meal to use in leiu of soy? It turns out that people can avoid almost all the soy in their diet by just getting off processed foods. I just looked in my cupboard and scanned the few boxed items I have for any soy ingredients. I had only one product in my entire kitchen that had soy in it, and it was organic soy lecithin in an organic energy bar my husband keeps around for long runs. The little bit of soy phytoestrogens that make it into chicken eggs, chicken meat, or pork is so minor as to be insignificant. If you feel like you need to reduce soy in your diet (even though the majority of peer-reviewed scientific papers still point out the health benefits of phytoestrogens), then elimate all or most processed foods. I can guarantee you that around 90% of the soy will be out of your diet. If you hate GMO soy, then eat organic. That’s pretty simple. If you insist on demanding that your eggs, chicken, pork, and other animal products come from animals not fed any soy, then you should not only consider how your demands affect the economic viability of those farmers (soy free feeds are super expensive) but also your impact on the planet. The alternative is quite often wild-caught fish.

As for me, I will continue to feed organic extruded full-fat soy as a small percentage of a diverse diet to my omnivorous species. If I have a chance to get fresh salmon fish waste from local fisherman and cook it down, I may feed that too (in small portions, never more than 5% of diet to avoid ‘fishy’ flavor). But I won’t be using any formulated feeds that contain wild caught fish, ever. I will not contribute to the overfishing of our oceans just to appease a few opionated customers. I encourage consumers to look at the big picture- their demands are taxing the planet.

Originally published on Honest Meat.

-Rebecca Thistlethwaite