There are significant reasons why a ban on “downer” cows should not be followed by a ban on downer sows, says a veterinary expert with the National Pork Board.

On May 20, the USDA announced a proposed rule to ban non-ambulatory cattle from slaughter, following an April 22 petition from the American Meat Institute, the National Meat Association and the National Milk Producers Federation.

Paul Sundberg, DVM, vice president of Science and Technology with the National Pork Board, says that downer cows are truly a species apart from downer sows. The downer cattle issue that led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history wasn't really about animal handling or welfare, despite apparent abuse in a California beef packing plant. The real issue stemmed from a food safety concern because downer cows are associated with mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

While BSE affects very few cows, pigs don't become infected with BSE at all, he explains.

Pigs become fatigued from overexertion, turning them into downers when they are not given proper rest.

However, the cause is not due to disease, but rather to a buildup of lactic acid in the muscle. It's the same scenario that occurs in humans who run a race and feel tightness in their muscles.

“What we are trying to help everybody understand is that if a fatigued pig can't walk, it is not a food safety risk,” Sundberg says.

And he says the pork industry is stressing to USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) that meat plant inspectors must uniformly apply a policy that differentiates between a fatigued pig that can't walk and a cow that can't walk.

When that fatigued pig is given proper rest, it can recover and still be processed for consumption, Sundberg says. “It's a natural process that pigs must go through in order to recover.”

Producer Education

The need for education extends to pork producers, too. “Producers may not understand fatigued pigs either, because they may not see them. If they are able to get them on the truck and haul them to slaughter, they get their sales ticket and they go home,” Sundberg says. But a pig may not show signs of fatigue until it gets further into the packing plant.

The Pork Board is preparing an educational report on what producers can do to help avoid that condition.

“If a producer has a pig that gets away and has to be chased four times down the alleyway before it gets loaded onto a truck, it is probably at risk for being a fatigued pig when it gets to the packing plant,” Sundberg states.

Proper sorting and handling of pigs throughout the loading process can help reduce the incidence of fatigued pigs.

Truckers can do their part by providing appropriate bedding or sand, according to weather conditions, to keep pigs from slipping and moving around during transportation.

Early Detection

Producers should try to identify pigs early that are suffering from this metabolic condition. Once identified, segregate and provide proper rest.

Sundberg suggests the best management is to cool these pigs down with either air and/or water. “Remember, a pig doesn't sweat, so misting water on a pig can help it cool down, and within a couple of hours the pig should be back on its feet and obviously recovering.”

Genetics or other factors may contribute to this condition, too.

If a pig is lethargic for more than two hours and does not show any signs of alertness, it should be euthanized.

Pending Legislation

Since 2003, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) have proposed legislation to ban the slaughter and processing of all non-ambulatory livestock (including pigs), says Jennifer Greiner, DVM, director of Science and Technology for the National Pork Producers Council.

Following the California case involving downer cattle being processed at the Westland Packing Co., Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sponsored a bill that essentially says sick livestock cannot be allowed to enter the food chain.