Speakers tackle controversy surrounding swine welfare assessments

Veterinarians must rely on ethics and science, experts say
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Veterinary assessments and monitoring can be important tools for improving the welfare of swine. But veterinarians must use science and ethics to make assessments, and encourage the swine industry to make improvements in animal welfare, according to a panel of experts who addressed the issue during a series of joint swine-bovine welfare sessions at the AVMA Annual Convention.

During a panel following the sessions, a diverse audience drove a discussion that focused on the challenges facing the animal health community as it seeks to reconcile demands from the public for improved swine welfare, the needs of the animals, and the requirements of industry.

"It's going to be up to our professional (veterinary and animal science) communities to work together on this, and look at how we can avoid conflict-of-interest situations," said Janice Swanson, a professor of animal science at Kansas State University. "How can we best provide for industry as a whole, and provide quality assurance on animal welfare?"

According to the presenters, the stakes are high for the animal health community as it tries to resolve these issues.

"The potential for this issue to be divisive for (organized veterinary medicine) is huge; how are we going to come to a consensus when among ourselves, if we can't sit down and have rational discussions?" asked Dr. David E. Reeves, an associate professor of large animal medicine at the University of Georgia.

To resolve these issues, Dr. Reeves said that the profession must look at swine welfare overall. "It's important that we don't get hung up on just one welfare issue," he said.

Dr. Swanson suggested adopting a balanced approach to allow animals to express natural behaviors.

"If we take these concepts to the extremes, we'll lose the larger picture," she said. "The question comes down to identifying the (behaviors) that are most important to the animal. Most of us here are reasonable people, and we understand there will be suppression of some natural activity for the best interest of the animal."

Evaluating swine welfare will require veterinarians to make decisions based on science and ethics. Dr. Reeves encourages veterinarians to ask clients tough questions, and to ensure that ethical decisions are made.

"There will be times when we make our clients uncomfortable; if we don't, we're not doing our job," he said.

Dr. John Deen, a professor at the University of Minnesota, said that consistent assessment methods must be developed, and veterinarians must be trained to use them properly.

The speakers and audience members debated the relative merits of relying on industry to monitor itself, versus relying on regulatory agencies.

"Neither government regulation nor self-policing is perfect," Dr. Swanson said.

Dr. Swanson questioned whether the Department of Agriculture would be able to enforce new regulations at the farm level, because it would require a lot of resources to police such a large industry.

"Without enforcement, regulations don't amount to a hill of beans," she said.

Dr. Swanson said industries can implement changes faster by self-policing, but they have to follow the highest standards to make it work.

"You have to rely on a thorough process," she said. "You have to know that committees are put together with the highest level of scientific and ethical integrity."

Dr. Deen advocated a self-policing model, but said for it to work, the veterinary profession and industry must trust each other.

Dr. Reeves wants the profession to step up to the plate to build trust with the public. "I hope the veterinary profession can stand up and be accountable, police ourselves, and do a good job of it," Dr. Reeves said. "If we don't, we'll marginalize our degrees."

He thinks it is important to give the producers some credit for their dedication to the job and for their love of the animals they work with.

"This is extremely hard work, and I don't think our clients get enough credit," Dr. Reeves said.

The speakers said it's also important to address the economic and social issues involved. Government policies, consumer demand, and the drive for more efficient production keep prices low, making it difficult for producers to improve welfare and remain competitive, according to the speakers.

"We have to focus on the price issues to address (welfare) problems," Dr. Deen said. "Some issues are simply too expensive to address, and they are left on the table. We have to admit that in all parts of animal care."

An audience member said that European farmers have had success in raising prices because consumers are willing to pay more for food that was raised in a humane manner.

In the United States, this is not necessarily the case. "We have a whole society that is hooked on cheap," Dr. Swanson said.

But she added that with food production, there is a limit to how low prices can go.

"There is a point of no return on this. You can capture efficiency on a living animal to a certain extent and then you hit biological barrier," Dr. Swanson said. "On some things (such as poultry production), we've hit a biological barrier."

A change in American attitudes about food prices will be necessary to resolve these issues.

"We have to go through a whole social reorganization with this issue—keeping food affordable while allowing people to produce animals in a way that can be efficient, but also guaranteeing a reasonable quality of life for the animals," Dr. Swanson said.