The controversy over sow housing has stirred debate in two veterinary groups. One veterinary official says the tiff runs much deeper than that.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has always positioned itself as the voice for animal welfare policy in the swine veterinary community.

But that status may be slipping in the eyes of American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) leaders.

Tom Burkgren, DVM, executive director of the AASV, says trouble started brewing between the AASV and the AVMA over animal welfare at last summer's AVMA annual meeting.

At that annual meeting, criticism was leveled against AASV members for losing their objectivity “because we were too close to the industry we serve,” explains Burkgren. These same comments are now being repeated by animal rights activists in attempts to advance their agenda against animal agriculture.

“Of course, we do have very close ties with the nation's pork producers, and we (AASV) don't apologize for that. Expertise and commitment should not be misconstrued as a lack of objectivity,” he stresses.

Along with the criticism, AVMA's executive board also voted in November to disband its animal welfare committee, which included representation of all major food animal species groups, says Burkgren. This committee is to be replaced by a five-member AVMA animal welfare advisory committee.

The new advisory committee is only required to have three veterinarians. The committee's members must be “visionary thinkers” who will not represent any species group or animal industry. Burkgren is concerned that these changes will eliminate food animal veterinary representation, while not precluding radical animal rights activists.

Realignment Magnifies Division

Burkgren admits this realignment of the AVMA committee “has AASV officials very upset with the return to a more top-down governance that focuses on an AVMA staff-controlled and paternalistic approach to dealing with the allied groups within AVMA.”

Sow Housing Statement

In response to increased attention by AVMA on the hot-button issue of gestation stalls, the AASV board of directors recently approved its own swine welfare position statement.

Burkgren says the AASV position statement highlights three points:

  1. Most stockpersons deliver consistent and diligent care for their pigs, and compromised care is most often the result of a lack of understanding or inattention by individuals. Rarely is compromised care the result of malicious intent or inadequate resources in facilities, environment, food or water.

  2. It is incorrect and misleading to portray swine veterinarians as defenders of the status quo in swine care, particularly in the case of gestating sows. Swine veterinarians strive to educate producers, who use a wide variety of production systems, to assess sow welfare across a range of indicators, and to offer alternative care strategies when necessary.

  3. Swine veterinarians have seen deficiencies in stall housing, but even more often in other housing systems. Producers are exploring alternative methods where appropriate.

“However, to simply present a prohibition of gestation stalls before clearly better alternatives are developed is irresponsible and detrimental to the sows, both through the error of imposing a housing method that is unsustainable, and by drawing resources from other efforts that can be directed at improving pig welfare on farms,” the statement concluded.

“It is always difficult to define swine welfare, yet it is always evident that swine farmers and their veterinarians are involved in swine welfare improvement each day,” says AASV Pig Welfare Committee chairman John Deen, DVM, University of Minnesota. “This statement is an attempt to recognize the skills and responsibilities that are evident in these communities and explain how one issue, namely gestation stalls, cannot overwhelm the other important issues in swine welfare.”

AVMA also has a sow housing task force conducting a scientific literature review of sow housing, and is expected to recommend a position on gestation stalls, says Burkgren. The AASV has several members who sit on that task force. However, AVMA leadership will ultimately decide the sow housing position.