The future's bright for 2000 and beyond: Swine veterinarians, industry making strong comeback

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After overcoming what's seen by food animal practitioners and producers as some of the most detrimental economic and public relations hardships to hit the pork industry, swine practitioners from the United States, joined by veterinarians from foreign countries, regrouped at the AASP meeting in Indianapolis, March 11-14, to assess the future of swine practice — starting fresh, in a new century.

Changing industry

The Howard Dunne Memorial Lecture zeroed in on the changing industry. Dr. David E. Reeves, Department of Large Animal Medicine at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, spoke about "Managing Change, Variation, and Chance."

Dr. David E. Reeves
Dr. David E. Reeves

Dr. Reeves said, "Now is an opportunity to reflect and look forward. It is time for us to reevaluate our vocation and to anticipate the future. It is a time for us to redefine ourselves as we challenge our personal, business, and scientific beliefs. It is a time for us to gain perspective in change within our profession, within the swine industry."

He said, "The dynamic in the pork industry, like other farming sectors, is significant. The number of farms with pigs has decreased, and the number of pigs owned by individual businesses has increased."

Because of the drop in the number of family-owned farms, Dr. Reeves said it will be necessary for surviving producers, and therefore, veterinarians, to be open to change. "Continuing consolidation and price instability suggest, however, that the survivors cannot rest on past success, for the dynamic continues."

A minipoll conducted by Reeves indicated that swine practitioners are concerned most about practice role, business, corporate practice constraints, food safety, professional skills, industry structure, health and disease, personal life, animal welfare, government regulation, public perception, labor, and environment.

"There is a consensus [by veterinarians] that as the industry continues to consolidate, there will be less opportunity in private practice," Dr. Reeves said. "Successful veterinarians have realized the importance of risk management skills, generally acquiring them after graduation."

Comparing business organizations or units within an organization for performance — benchmarking — may be a helpful tool for managing change.

"The broiler chicken industry is very similar to the pork industry and has been recommended as a model for the swine industry," Dr. Reeves said. "Similarities are evident in industry structure; however, there are distinctly different avenues within the poultry model that the swine industry can pursue."

Overall, Dr. Reeves concluded, the industry will be different from what practitioners are used to. "Our effectiveness in the new industry will depend upon our timeliness, adaptability, and skill."

Antimicrobial regulatory action

Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA-CVM, presented an overview of the ongoing work of the CVM in the area of antimicrobial resistance.

"Our regulatory vision is changing from a chemical to a microbiologic approach," Dr. Sundlof said.

This summer after it collates comments, the FDA is aiming to finalize the framework document it released in December 1998. Dr. Sundlof said the document examines how to evaluate and minimize the potential human health effects of uses of antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals. The document also aims to look at how likely it is that humans are going to be exposed to resistant pathogens, based on proposed use of certain drugs.

The FDA's surveillance system, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, is accumulating more funding each year. The system monitors changes in antimicrobial susceptibilities of zoonotic enteric pathogens from human and animal clinical specimens from healthy farm animals, and from carcasses of food-producing animals at slaughter.

"The CDC does culture and susceptibility testing. On the animal side, we're testing at various locations. Most testing comes through USDA and FSIS slaughter facilities. Now we're working with states to pick up retail poultry sample isolates by going into supermarkets, buying poultry, and culturing for Campylobacter and sending isolates to the USDA-ARS laboratory," Dr. Sundlof said.

He said the CVM has received comments that they need to do better risk assessment because people aren't convinced there is sufficient evidence of a link between resistance to antimicrobials in animals and human health problems.

Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof
Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof

In December 1999, the CVM released a risk assessment on Campylobacter.

"We assumed that resistant bacteria will pass through the food supply just as susceptible bacteria do. We made the assumption that Campylobacter is most often associated with foodborne illness. We assumed that humans will be treated the same, whether they have a susceptible or resistant infection. People who come to clinics for treatment of diarrhea often are given fluoroquinolones."

The risk assessment study found that individuals with fluoroquinolone-resistant infections who were treated with a fluoroquinolone had the disease longer.

"Some assumptions we've made in the past have been largely driven by uncertainty. Now, the scientific limits are being addressed," Dr. Sundlof said. "We're seeing physicians now saying that if they have a certain percentage of resistance, they won't use a drug anymore."

Disease-free US pork

As Dr. Reeves mentioned in the Howard Dunne Memorial Lecture, practitioners are serious about food safety. United States practitioners are aware of international and local diseases of swine, and take precautionary measures, following regulatory avenues to keep US pork safe to eat.

A food safety and zoonoses workshop concentrated on Salmonella, Toxoplasma gondii, rodent control, the Nipah virus, needles in meat, and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points analysis.

Dr. Thomas Blaha, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, said although veterinarians know about and contend with Salmonella on a regular basis, they are not yet at a point where they can say they know everything about the organism.

Stressing biosecurity and hygiene as measures to reduce Salmonella infections, Dr. Blaha said, veterinarians should visit farms and identify potential sources of contamination.

Prevention measures include external and internal biosecurity, such as changing boots between buildings, using foot baths, containing feed properly, cleaning dust from vents, monitoring new pigs brought into the facility, keeping rodents, birds, and other livestock away from facility.

Dr. Blaha also noted that Salmonella control programs in Sweden, Finland, and Norway and the recently launched Danish control program created market pressure for other countries to reduce Salmonella infection in herds.

Implement Dr. Blaha's Salmonella elimination program with a T gondii program, and the farm is on its way to being safer and cleaner.

The spread of T gondii from pigs to humans is not well defined, according to Dr. H. Ray Gamble, USDA Agricultural Research Service. The definitive host is the cat, which can spread the disease to any animal. Consumption of the infected source can infect another animal.

"A single oocyst in the environment could cause infection in the pig," Dr. Gamble said.

Disease prevention includes elimination of all cats from the vicinity of swine facilities. "Very seldom do we get on a farm that's Toxoplasma positive where there has not been some evidence of cats," Dr. Gamble said.

Currently no test exists to determine the source of T gondii infection. Dr. Gamble said testing by bioassay — feeding infected meat to a cat and testing its feces for oocysts — is the only tried-and-true method, but serologic methods are also useful.

New food safety surveillance measures are now required through the HACCP system, implemented by the FSIS on Jan 25, 2000. The HACCP system mandates producer and packer participation in quality assurance.

Dr. James D. McKean, Iowa State University extension veterinarian, said the responsibility is now shifted to the packing plant. The FSIS monitors the plants.

"HACCP goes up and down the food production chain. The HACCP rules require breaking the traditional, historic food safety program you learned about in veterinary school — breaking the command and control where the USDA had a set of practices that you should do — and shifts the responsibility now to the packer," Dr. McKean said.

"Now plants are responsible for food safety through the HACCP plan they write. The FSIS reviews and modifies those plans. It's no longer the government's problem; it's now my problem if I am production manager of that plant. The HACCP rules also encourage the FSIS to set performance standards."

Establishment of record keeping is a potential problem for producers, Dr. McKean said. Practitioners have an opportunity to develop skills and realize financial gains by setting up and reviewing programs.

Veterinarians also can be involved in HACCP by providing education about the changes in the system. Some producers are not familiar with the new HACCP regulations required of packers.

Comparing the HACCP system to the computer industry, Dr. McKean said, "Continuous product improvement is a way of life in the United States. This is an opportunity for veterinarians to strengthen the role of the food safety practitioner on the farm."

Welfare assurance

Food safety and animal health have been joined by another quality checkpoint, animal welfare. Consumers, who generally get the final say in how the food animal industry operates, indicate they will not stand for inhumane treatment of any animal.

The swine industry is taking action to look at welfare issues before laypersons define them first. One leading-edge welfare expert in the food animal industry, Temple Grandin, PhD, assistant professor, Colorado State University, reported current research into improving conditions for swine.

She gave 12 tips for moving and loading finishing pigs, such as moving small groups at a time and minimizing or eliminating use of electric prods — substituting plastic flags to wave to keep animals moving. At the plant, she said, pigs should be allowed to rest for two to four hours to reduce stress levels before they are slaughtered. Packers should watch for distractions that cause pigs to balk in the chute, such as shiny reflections on metal, or puddles.

Dr. Grandin also encouraged geneticists and producers to work together to produce pigs that are easy to handle. "Geneticists need to select pigs that have a calm temperament and strong bones."


Demand for pork and the economics of the industry were analyzed by Dennis DiPietre, PhD, E-Markets Inc, Ames, Iowa. Dr. DiPietre noted, "We are beginning to see branding emerge in fresh meat products."

"As the swine market moves further from competitive market conditions, there will be greater incentives to align segments of the chain to achieve the coordination necessary to meet consumer preferences," he said.

A brand name allows increased cost. Retail stores tend to resist offering brand name meat that is not the store name, however, because they lose negotiability. "We will see a move by distributors to be keepers of information to maintain brand equity."

New skills

Amongst changes, swine practitioners cannot forget the importance of maintaining a leadership position in their industry through politics. Steve Kopperud, senior vice president of the American Feed Industry Association and president of the Animal Industry Foundation, knows politics through his lobbying efforts for the animal industry in Washington, DC.

"Veterinarians carry the highest credibility with animal production, care, food safety, and other topics. But that doesn't mean a thing if you don't stand up and talk," Kopperud said.

He stressed the importance of explaining issues in layperson's terms to help politicians understand an issue and studying the issue for all it's worth, paying attention to weak points the opposition may find in your argument. "The message must be honed, accurate, and truthful. Credibility is key."

The swine industry often must face scrutiny from the community. Margaret M. Prahl, a defense attorney, encouraged practitioners to use persuasion to their advantage.

"You must know yourself, and you must be yourself," she said. "Passion does convince people."

This may be why animal rights activists win empathy, often using inaccurate or incomplete information.

When lagoons leak or the industry falls prey to animal rights activists, Lois G. Britt, public affairs vice president for Murphy Family Farms, pleads with veterinarians to step to the plate and pitch for public image.

"The swine industry has realized we need image makers. ... For the most part the media have defined the swine industry," Britt said. "Will you or someone else define your image?"

Business meeting

During the board of directors meeting, action was taken on several motions. Actions taken include:

  • Continuing the AASP's membership in the Pork Alliance of the NPPC
  • Approving three veterinarians for AASP life membership: Dr. Lewis Runnels, Dr. Eldon Todd, and Dr. Kenneth Meyer
  • Publishing and distributing the good production practices and the audit materials to all AASP members and authorizing the AASP Pork Safety Committee to present these materials as official AASP documents at a national level, including (but not limited to) presentation to the National Pork Producers Council and the USDA

The board of directors postponed a motion to support the national pork checkoff in its current form.

During the meeting, the 2000 AASP officers were announced. Dr. Robert B. Morrison, St Paul, Minn, is president; Dr. David P. Madsen, Shelby, Neb, is president-elect; Dr. Lisa M. Tokach, Abilene, Kan, is vice president; and Dr. Alan B. Scheidt, Raleigh, NC, is immediate past president.