How Britain battled food waste – with the help of hungry pigs

Pigs being fed at a council farm in Ilford in 1940
Pigs being fed at a council farm in Ilford in 1940 - Hulton Archive

I was recently fed a social-media advert in which a wellness influencer – neat eyebrows, beatific glow – gestures enthusiastically as she talks about how much she loves a particular brand of “wrapper-free” protein bar. These bars, which resemble square shortbread biscuits, have edible casings (like sausages), so you can wash and eat them (like apples); they come in flavours such as ‘Banoffee’ and ‘Strawberries & Cream’. They come in a box, and are made from completely natural ingredients, or so the brand’s website insists: “No rubbish, just good vibes.”

Sceptical as I am of these Frankenbiscuits, I can understand why you might buy them. Think of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Three times the landmass of France, this rubbish vortex isn’t the Technicolour island of crisp bags you’d imagine, but more of “a murky soup” – as described by the sailor who discovered it – filled with six times more microplastics than plankton. And that’s just packaging: when it comes to food waste – the topic of Eleanor Barnett’s new book Leftovers: A History of Food Waste and Preservation – Britain alone generates 10 million tonnes a year.

Leftovers, refreshingly, looks to the past, and forgoes anxiety-inducing missives about how we “aren’t doing enough”. Drawing a clear line from the 14th century to the Covid-19 lockdowns, Barnett explains how we got to that 10-million-tonne heap. Her focus stays firmly on food waste, rather than food-packaging, but she does show how innovations in packaging transformed the ways we consume food, and its knock-on effect on class.

Take, for example, the “Mock Turtle Soup” recipe she includes, taken from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). The recipe uses half a tin of calf’s head in place of turtle meat, the latter of which was then a status symbol at lavish formal dinners (it was inevitably expensive to import live green turtles from the West Indies). The accessibility of tinned food for the widening middle-class allowed them to walk the line between upper-class tastes and lower-class thriftiness.

Housewives with ration cards in Petticoat Lane Market in 1946
Housewives with ration cards in Petticoat Lane Market in 1946 - Eric Harlow

The best thing about reading a history book – a well-written one, at least – is the humble reminder that everything we consider innovative has been done before in some form or another. The ambiguously edible wrapper of the Frankenbiscuit, for example, has a precedent: pie crust. In the Early Modern era, its primary purpose was to protect the meat inside from spoiling, hence why people called this thick, dry pastry-casing “the coffin”. Barnett illustrates the point with images of two Jan Steen oil paintings from the 1600s that show women eating meat out of topless pie crusts: the peasant uses her hands, the aristocrat uses a spoon.

Back then, food waste was impossible to avoid, due to the lack of any centralised system of rubbish removal. Animal carcasses stank in London’s streets and – after butchers were given the governmental go-ahead to dump waste into waterways – the Thames, eventually leading to the “Great Stink” of 1858. (Barnett fills in a lot of colour when describing this event, including a song sheet for ‘The Lamentation of Old Father Thames’, a character who sings of “white bait looking black” and “ghosts of departed flounders”.) For centuries, the closest thing to a centralised waste-disposal system was the ubiquity of pigs, who ate up rotting leftovers and household waste until they themselves were fat enough to be turned into bacon.

Food waste wasn’t just overtly visible – it was deeply embedded into material reality. Animal by-products were used to make violin strings, lamp oil, combs, dice, glue and paint brushes. The irony of using waste to craft such romantic objects was, Barnett notes, not lost on artists of the time. She quotes Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?”

A rat in a modern food-waste bin
A rat in a modern food-waste bin - Alamy

Barnett implies that what brought us to our current predicament was the ever-widening distance between people and the food waste they generated – first as a result of sanitation measures that moved livestock off the streets, and then thanks to canned and refrigerated items that allowed food to be produced and butchered abroad. Take beef tea, for example, a beverage made by cooking leftover meat scraps in hot water. When Bovril, which was made with Argentinian beef, reached the British market in 1888, it replaced the onerous task of handling smelly, perishable innards with a neat just-add-water method. The jar, with its red-and-white label, became an object of sentimental attachment. It told the consumer: we’ve handled the difficult part, so you don’t have to. Consumers could trust it was safe, and it tasted the same every time. “No rubbish, just good vibes.”

Barnett excels at choosing specific, often funny examples that demystify the past, a skill she’s honed from running her popular Instagram account, @historyeats. Her nimble, confident writing makes Leftovers bingeable (as it were), without coming at the expense of rigour or depth. It’s clear that she loves her subject material, and her enthusiasm is contagious. That must be how she’s managed to make a topic as comically dry as the invention of the tin can so fascinating.


Leftovers by Eleanor Barnett is published by Bloomsbury at £27.99. To order your copy for £23.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books