A panel of farm animal care specialists created to analyze undercover video investigations at livestock farms has examined video from a hog farm in Kentucky. The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) created the Animal Care Review Panel to engage recognized animal care specialists to examine video and provide expert perspectives for food retailers, the pork industry and the media.

The panel examined video that was posted online by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) this week. The expert panel was comprised of Dr. Candace Croney, Purdue University; Dr. Lisa Tokach, a practicing swine veterinarian in Kansas, Dr. John Deen of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.

The U.S. pork industry has been hit hard by a highly contagious and deadly virus known as porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) that has killed millions of pigs in the last 10 months. The farm targeted in the video was fighting the disease and HSUS takes issue with a process called “feedback” to deal with the disease. The intestines of piglets that have died from the disease are ground up and fed back to pregnant sows in order to expose her to the virus so she can build up immunity to pass on to her newborn piglets thus protecting them from PEDv. Another practice that has proven effective is spraying a small amount of diluted feces from an infected piglet onto the snouts of sows.

Ethical and legal considerations

“There’s no question that people may be put off by this treatment, but PEDV is wreaking havoc out there on the farms and “feedback” is the only control method we have found to be effective,” said Burkgren.

“The top welfare issue on the farm featured in this video is the PEDV issue and the many pigs that are dying from it,” said Deen. “This process is universally recognized as having real efficacy in reducing the number of pigs that are dying.”

“Is it better to save pigs’ lives and improve their welfare or to say this is too ‘icky’ and just let the pigs die?” added Burkgren. “That’s what it comes down to because there is absolutely no other alternative.”

Dr. Croney, an animal welfare specialist and ethicist, said the public might wonder why science has not progressed to the point that more refined procedures are available.

“The disease was unknown in the United States prior to April 15th – it’s been here less than a year,” said Burkgren. “Federal funding for animal health research is virtually nonexistent. It’s almost a perfect storm. This is a virus that was unknown in the U.S. prior to April and the characteristics of the virus don’t lend themselves to research and development. People need to ask themselves, what are you more uncomfortable with; truckloads of dead pigs or exposing animals to a fecal slurry?”

Scale to blame?

The video asserts diseases such as PEDV are more rampant on farms where animals are kept indoors. The experts disagree.

“Claims that the infection rate is greater on so-called ‘factory farms’ than on other farms and that smaller farms don’t use practices like “feedback” are just wrong,” said Tokach. “I work with all sizes of farms and they are all dealing with the same issues. It’s just more dramatic when you have 5,000 sows instead of 5 sows.”

Tokach added the “feedback” process is a difficult issue for hog farm employees.

“I’ve worked with people on these types of farms and it’s traumatic for them to do this. But they accept the fact that it can get the problem under control in a matter of weeks instead of the disease running its course for several months. People need to realize its being done to minimize the death loss.”

 

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Ethical question

The video questions whether the “feedback” process is ethical, and the word “cannibalism” has been used in association with it. Dr. Croney offered thoughts on the ethical consideration.

“The aesthetics of what is happening here should not be the sole consideration although it is hard to get past that. The real ethical question is whether the industry should refrain from using the crude procedures currently available to stimulate immunity to the disease because of the high ‘ick’ factor that is involved. Where is more harm done under these specific circumstances? It would seem to create an ethical problem if a farmer did not use the tools available to potentially save animals simply because of how the procedure might be perceived. It would be a different situation if the discussion was about doing this routinely or killing healthy piglets to do this or putting animal or public health at risk. That’s simply not the case here. It’s a tricky situation created by lack of scientifically sound alternatives and a case of emergency. The aesthetics and potential negative public perception simply compound the issue.”

The panel says the video’s claim that the “feedback” process is illegal in the state of Kentucky is likely true.

“There is a regulation in Kentucky that goes back decades on feeding garbage and the definition of garbage includes animal tissue,” said Burkgren. “So, it may technically be illegal. We’re checking with Kentucky’s state veterinarian for more information and current interpretation of the regulation.”

Confinement Housing

In the video, it’s stated that sows housed in gestation stalls are driven insane by the confinement as exhibited by their loud squeals for help and constantly biting the rails of their stalls.

“The loud level of vocalization and intensity of bar-biting are very common during feeding time,” said Croney. “Bar-biting is often thought to be a coping mechanism associated with frustrated feeding behavior, and that is particularly likely in an unenriched environment where the animals have nothing else on which to re-direct the behavior. It is a valid concern that a socially and cognitively complex species such as the pig needs greater consideration of their behavioral and mental needs. However, I would not be comfortable asserting that the vocalization heard on the video indicates pigs being driven insane by stalls, particularly in absence of knowing when they are calling and for how long.”

Other experts noted the behaviors are seen in all types of housing system.

“The assertion is that intensive agriculture leads to more disease and the development of new pathogens such as swine flu,” said Deen. “That contradicts current research and the current understanding of disease emergence. For instance, the claim that biosecurity is better for animals housed outdoors is just wrong. To say that transmission of disease between farms increases with intensification of production is unsubstantiated.”

“Somebody watching this video might conclude that PEDV only happens on this type of farm. It just isn’t true,” added Tokach. Regarding sows in stalls she also added, “It is clearly stated that the rate of injury is high and that inactivity leads to lameness. We have research showing the opposite is true – the injury rate is actually lower in intensive housing systems.”

The video shows sows with uterine prolapses. The experts said this is not an uncommon occurrence on breeding farms, but the key is timely treatment.

“When a sow was shown with a prolapse, newborn piglets are also seen, which means the condition was probably fairly new,” said Tokach. “This happens whether you have the pigs outdoors or in barns. The question is how quickly it’s dealt with and it’s impossible to tell in this video if the animal received timely attention.”

The experts also expressed frustration at the “choppy” nature of the video, saying it was difficult to tell whether animals were being handled appropriately.

Hidden camera investigations at livestock farms have heightened public attention on animal care issues. In an effort to foster a more balanced conversation and to provide credible feedback to promote continuous improvement in farm animal care, CFI created the Animal Care Review Panel.

The Panel operates independently. Its reviews, assessments, recommendations and reports will not be submitted to the pork industry for review or approval. CFI’s only role is to facilitate the review process and release the panel’s findings.

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