The Swine of Sin City

The American resort city of Las Vegas, Nevada, is a bit of a geographic anomaly — it is situated in the Mojave Desert, far from any reliable water source. People, animals, and other living things need water, so it doesn’t seem like Vegas should work as a tourist destination, but the 1930s changed the fate of the city. In 1931, Nevada legalized gambling and reduced the residency requirement for a divorce to a nation-lowest six weeks, and shortly thereafter, the United States government began construction of the Hoover Dam, creating a reservoir in the region. Vegas, which had previously been nothing more than a railway junction, boomed into the international entertainment capital it is today.

And then came the pigs.

If you go to Las Vegas, you’ll find opulence and excess, often to cartoonish extremes. And there is perhaps no better example of this than the many buffets and Vegas casinos. Created with an eye toward keeping gamblers fed, happy, and most importantly, in the casino, these eat-o-ramas have been around since the 1940s, providing large quantities of food for relatively low prices. The downside of the buffets, at least from an operational standpoint, is that they’re a lot of food waste — the casinos make a lot of food, put it out for the taking, and whatever doesn’t get eaten can’t be used in the future. Like any other type of waste, this becomes an additional cost for the casino; not only did the hoteliers have to pay to buy the ingredients, make the food, and serve it, but they also have to pay someone to accept and haul away the uneaten food.

In 1963, a 70-year-old named Robert Combs went to Las Vegas to celebrate his milestone birthday. While at one of these buffets, and like many other customers, he realized that the amount of food waste was enormous. But unlike most other customers, Combs saw it as an opportunity. A rancher who came from several generations of ranchers before him, Combs knew that people could be pigs, sure, but pigs were even piggier. And they’d eat the food waste. Even though “farms” and “deserts” aren’t a good combination, Combs thought that Vegas casinos created an exception to that rule. As Modern Farmer reported, Combs “soon purchased a 160-acre pig farm in North Las Vegas. His idea was basic: he’d haul away the Strip’s buffet leftovers, thereby providing free waste removal to the hotels — and an eclectic food source for his hogs. He quickly hammered out arrangements with old-school joints like the Dunes and the Golden Nugget.” 

Fast forward half a century and the business is still booming, now under the name Las Vegas Livestock. In 2017, Eater spoke with Combs’ children, who have since taken over the business; according to Hank Combs, “the family company currently handles about 15 percent of buffet food waste in Las Vegas” as of 2017. Those “food scraps” — Bob Combs told Eater that “a very expensive PR person told us to get rid of the word waste, so [they] use ‘food scraps’” — are loaded into a big vat, boiled, and turned into a slop ready-made for pigs to pig out on. And the pigs, per Bob Combs, “they go for it.” 

And it’s a win-win-win — for the pig farmers, the casinos, and to a degree, for the environment as well. Las Vegas Livestock doesn’t pay for the food waste and the casinos, in most cases, don’t pay to have it removed –.the casinos are glad to get rid of the waste for free, and LVL is glad to take it.  (Bob Combs, another of Robert’s sons, told Modern Farmer that “some of [the casinos] are difficult to serve — it’s not sorted out, or I have to use special equipment or something — so I have to charge them something,” but that’s not the norm.) And from a sustainability perspective, food waste becomes feed for locally-raised pigs, which LVL slaughters and sells to the local casino industry. As Vice reported, “in 2018, the U.S. EPA recognized [MGM Resorts International for their] food recovery efforts by awarding them with a Food Recovery Challenge Award,” citing in part the casino chain’s arrangement with Las Vegas Livestock. 

Today, Las Vegas Livestock is still open and thriving. In early 2020, when the casinos shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their business teetered as their source of pig slop shut down suddenly, but LVL persisted. If you go to a Vegas casino today and visit the buffet, there’s a good chance that the stuff that doesn’t make it to someone’s plate will end up in front of one of LVL’s pigs.

Bonus fact: Another place that uneaten Vegas food goes? The oceans, but in a good way. Per the above-linked Vice article, “MGM has also been collecting oyster shells from its restaurants, dries them out in Vegas, and ships them to Maryland to help restore oyster beds in the Chesapeake Bay.”

From the Archives: Bacon of the Sea: Meet the swimming pigs!