The pork industry responds to animal welfare challenges from sweeping changes in the European Union to banning gestation stalls in Florida and fast-food industry guidelines.
Raising hogs is raising concerns about their welfare from a variety of camps.
The pork industry has responded with plans for a new indexing system to measure animal welfare on the farm. Also, new research from Texas Tech University contradicts European policy that changes in sow care are needed.
Because pork producers do a good job of self-regulation, no government rules mandate production practices for animal agriculture, says Paul Sundberg, DVM, National Pork Board.
New Indexing System
Part of the pork industry's defense has been funding animal welfare research, he says. This year, however, the National Pork Board is funding work into a new swine welfare indexing system. It's an effort that was spawned more than a year ago, before the increased flap over animal welfare practices, he stresses. The idea is to provide pork producers with an objective welfare-measuring system. The goal is to develop spreadsheets detailing five to seven production practices that measure animal well-being.
When the index is completed, producers will be able to evaluate and benchmark their production system for assessment of animal welfare, no matter the production system, says Sundberg.
Unlike animal rights activists, who attempt to base animal well-being only on an unscientific set of welfare parameters, the indexing system will measure all three aspects of animal welfare production, behavior and physiological characteristics Sundberg says.
“You've got to take all three of those into balance to do a good job of measuring animal welfare,” he states. “These people who say sows biting on bars is bad misrepresent the situation because all they do is focus only on behavior. They are trying to measure the pig's intent by focusing only on behavior when there is no scientific consensus that even bar biting indicates stress. It may be a natural behavior. You also have to look at the other two factors,” he says.
Texas Tech Responds
In June, the European Union (EU) passed a new animal welfare code that is to be phased in from 2002 through 2012. In part, it calls for sows to be fed a high-fiber diet and for gestation stalls to be banned.
John J. McGlone, professor of animal science and director of the Pork Industry Institute at Texas Tech, says that EU code is based on some shaky science.
McGlone conducted research at Texas Tech's research farm just north of Lubbock, comparing the performance of gilts raised indoors or outdoors and gestated in confinement crates.
“Many people believe that sow behaviors, such as bar biting, indicate that the animal is frustrated and experiencing stress,” relates McGlone. “The significance of this study is that, following a thorough analysis of the sows' immune systems, we found no physiological signs that indicated the pregnant females were experiencing stress.” Oral, nasal and facial behavioral patterns were measured.
Earlier research by McGlone and his colleagues showed that sows exhibited similar levels of chewing, licking and rooting in their environment whether housed indoors in crates or in outdoor lots.
Gilts were crossfostered at one day of age. They were reared indoors or outdoors to 150 lb. Then they were formed into groups of eight, indoors or outdoors, where they stayed until they moved to crated gestation. Behavior was videotaped at 30, 60 and 90 days in gestation. There were no major differences in behavior between gilts raised outdoors or indoors, says McGlone.
Secondly, adding fiber to the diet did not improve sow physiology or behavior in the Texas Tech work, published in the June 2001 issue of the Journal of Animal Science. Nineteen of the 42 gilts were fed a control diet of sorghum-soybean meal and 23 were fed an identical diet with 25%-added beet pulp. Adding fiber will also generate a large mass of manure, creating a significant environmental concern, he says.
McGlone concludes: “The EU's decision to make changes in their pig meat production industry may not necessarily be based on the available science. Plus, it will have significant financial and social impacts on European pork producers and on their pigs with inadequate support from scientific data.”
Florida Sow Amendment
The Florida Supreme Court is reviewing a proposed constitutional amendment to have sow gestation crates banned in the state.
Floridians for Humane Farms, Pompano, FL, has collected more than 132,000 signatures of the nearly 500,000 needed to have its petition placed on the Florida ballot next year. By law, the high court must review each proposal to ensure it deals with a single subject and accurately tells voters what the amendment seeks to accomplish.
The proposal is a sham, says Frankie Hall, Florida Farm Bureau, and representative for the Florida Pork Improvement Group.
“We have tried to explain that gestation crates are an approved animal husbandry practice,” says Hall.
Even if this plan passed, it would only affect two producers who use gestation crates. Both are established farms, a 300-sow and a 600-sow operation in central and northern Florida, respectively. There are only about 10 bonafide pork producers in the whole state, he adds.
Hall says the only reason the activist group is going the constitutional amendment route is failure to stir legislative interest in the issue.
“Florida has the constitutional amendment opportunity, and they felt if they could get it passed in Florida, it opens the doors to some other states,” he says.
The activist group's Web site is www.bancruelfarms.org.
Kathy Chinn vividly remembers what it was like raising hogs outdoors in the '70s. In mid-summer, she and husband Gary had heat and humidity to deal with, plus there were added disease problems with the dirt lots.
“It was always a case of survival of the fittest and competition for food amongst the animals,” recalls the Clarence, MO, 30-year pork producer veteran.
The couple's operation evolved into confinement production in the '80s to provide the best animal care and also to maintain a productive, efficient swine enterprise, says Kathy, new chair of the National Pork Board's animal welfare committee.
Sow gestation crates a hot animal welfare topic today are a prime example of how sow care has improved in their 1,800-sow, farrow-to-finish operation, she says. Grouped outside, dominant sows controlled the herd, and it was difficult to manage and maintain individuals, she adds.
With their 1,600 gestation crates in three barns, performance, care and survival has boomed. “We have a much lower sow mortality rate now than we ever had before,” she exclaims. “We are looking at sow mortality rates of less than 8%, consistently.
“With the crates, we are much more equipped to give our sows better care since we can see each animal individually,” says Kathy. “Critics of gestation crates don't seem to understand that sows no longer have to compete with each other for food. They have their own space. For us, this is a much better way to go.”
Burger King Approves Food Animal Handling Guidelines
Burger King Corp. has passed the fast-food industry's first food animal handling guidelines and audits. The company has also petitioned the Agriculture Department to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act.
The new guidelines require packing plant suppliers to meet standards for the care, housing, transport and slaughter of cattle, hogs and poultry. Suppliers who do not meet company animal handling guidelines will face disciplinary action.
Slaughterhouse audits begin Oct. 31 and will be completed by June 30, 2002, say company officials. Burger King has not divulged how it intends to audit the care, housing and transport issues on suppliers' farms.
The American Meat Institute (AMI) applauded Burger King's move and called the petition to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act as largely unnecessary. The act is enforced by federal inspectors every day in meat packing plants, according to AMI officials.
Most of the guidelines refer to poultry and cattle production and handling practices.
Burger King will encourage and support scientific research of sow gestation stalls. Alternative sow housing may also be studied. The Miami, FL-based company says it will begin buying pork from suppliers successfully using alternative sow housing practices.