What happens to those brown-spotted bananas or slightly tarnished mushrooms that you bypass for more attractive produce at the grocery store? Unfortunately, a lot of them end up in the landfill.
A 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) tells the story in numbers. According to "Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill," $165 billion worth of food is produced in the U.S. each year and subsequently goes unconsumed. That's more than 10 times the amount of food discarded today in Southeast Asia, and double the amount of food Americans threw away in 1970.
The report states that "the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste, where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions."
But now, dairy cows are starting to dine on the fruits and veggies we leave behind.
Discarded food put to use
A new effort is under way to gather discarded fruits and vegetables from retailers and repurpose them into animal feed. Viridiun LLC, an Atlanta, Ga.-area-based company specializing in food recycling, is working with dairy and beef operations in 13 states to supply high-quality cattle feed made up of processed produce.
"As Americans, we've grown very particular about the quality and appearance of the fruits and vegetables we purchase," says Eric Hickman, president and CEO of Viridiun. "But there's absolutely nothing wrong with most of the produce left behind, except that its acceptable shelf life, by consumers" standards, has expired."
Hickman and his colleagues have developed a collection and distribution system to regularly gather discarded produce from grocery stores, deliver it to cattle farms, and process it into a highly nutritious feed source.
"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that, next to human consumption, animal feed is the second-most efficient use of fruits and vegetables," says Hickman. "Our job is to take that concept and make it a reality."
‘They love it"
We all know that fruits and vegetables are good for us, but what about the cows? Viridiun turned to Mark
Froetschel, professor of animal and dairy science at the University of Georgia, to find out. Froetschel and his team have conducted several studies to evaluate various feed characteristics of the grocery byproduct feed. Perhaps the most important initial question: would cows eat it?
The Georgia researchers fed Holstein steers a wheat silage-based TMR containing graduated levels of the grocery blend at 0, 20, 40 and 60 percent of dry matter. They saw a nearly direct linear increase in consumption as inclusion levels of the grocery blend went up. In other words, the more fruits and vegetables in the diet, the more they ate. "They love it," says Froetschel.
An evaluation of digestible energy showed the grocery feed source to have an energy value of 85 percent TDN, which is just below that of corn. But Froetschel also was concerned about the potential variability of the feed source. His team studied 200 samples and found a 23 percent variation in moisture content, but just an 8 percent variability of energy levels on a dry-matter basis.
Froetschel points out that, compared to other co-product feed sources that have the starch and sugar components removed, those elements remain intact in the grocery blend. "The result is a highly fermentable product with excellent rumen digestibility," he says.
Finally, the research team evaluated the potential of ensiling the product for on-farm storage. "This is a feedstuff that is very high in sugars and organic acids like acetate and lactic acid," Froetschel explains. "Because it lacks physical form, there is no need to pack it like traditional silage, and we found the pH drops very quickly, stabilizing at around pH 4 even though it is a very high-moisture product."
While the Georgia researchers confirmed that ensiling is possible, most farms feed it within two to three days of delivery. Froetschel says either way is acceptable, noting that sugars will be higher when it is fed "as delivered," organic acids will be higher when it is ensiled, but ultimately, its TDN on a DM basis is relatively consistent.
With high levels of soluble carbohydrate (25-45 percent), the product also delivers a moderate amount of fiber (25 percent NDF) and a small amount of protein (12 percent). Froetschel says soy hulls are an excellent choice as an added protein source because their water-binding capacity is highly compatible with the high moisture content of the grocery blend. It also mixes well in silage-based TMRs. "Dairies currently using the product are blending it at about 20 percent of their total TMR on a DM basis," adds Froetschel.
The Viridiun team was highly enthusiastic about the results of the University of Georgia research, but also recognized that there are other questions that need to be answered to ensure confidence in the product. The biggest one: safety.
Jim Collins, industry relations consultant for Viridiun, works directly with state departments of agriculture and state veterinarians. The grocery blend is a licensed and registered feed product every state in which the company does business, meaning that it is subjected to rigorous safety testing for pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria. Even after clearing registration, the processed product is sampled at every farm at least once a month and tested for pathogens. William Reems, account manager for Viridiun, adds that daily samples also are pulled and frozen at every farm site to allow for trace-back evaluation if needed.
Collins points out that the grocery blend is a "pre-consumer" product because consumers have never taken possession of it, as opposed to post-consumer or "plate waste," that has passed through consumer channels. Grocery store employees are trained on disposal protocols to ensure that meat and banned items do not contaminate the feed product. Trained employees also remove packaging, and the vessels that are used to collect and transport the discarded produce are locked to protect product safety and integrity. "We take a very hands-on approach to preserve the quality and consistency of the product," says Collins.
Initial concerns about certain foods like garlic and onions creating off-flavors in milk have proven unfounded. "It's not the same as when cows were grazing full-time and occasionally consumed a large batch of wild onions," says Reems. "Because we have access to essentially all the same types of produce yeararound in this country, the makeup and flavor of the blend is highly consistent."
When processing of the produce mix proved too cumbersome for standard TMR wagons, Viridiun developed a patent-pending milling system that chops the fruits and vegetables into bite-sized pieces. The result is a slurry that is the consistency of runny oatmeal, and the machines also have the ability to partition off moisture and add it back into the TMR as desired.
To ensure proper mixing, a Viridiun employee operates the milling machine at each farm location. As each batch is processed, they draw a sample at the beginning, middle and end of each load, and send one sample a week for laboratory nutrition analysis. Eventually, they see the potential for trained, on-farm employees to perform the milling and sampling procedures.
With feed commodity prices at unprecedented levels in recent years, dairy producers and their nutritionists naturally are interested in alternative feedstuffs to improve income over feed costs. Based on current values for corn ($5.53/bu.) and soybean meal ($485.00/ton), the equivalent feed value for the grocery blend at 80 percent moisture would be $46.50/ton. A discounted price is set depending on volume, transportation costs and other factors.
"For dairies, we see tremendous potential to provide an economical, highly consistent and palatable product that is available year-around," says Hickman. "It's a win for the environment, and it utilizes valuable nutrients that would otherwise be wasted."
For more information, visit www.viridiun.com, or call 1-855-847-4348.