Veterinarians continue discussing swine welfare

AASV annual meeting also addresses issue of antimicrobial usage
Published on April 15, 2006
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Consumer concerns about pork production—particularly about swine welfare and antimicrobial usage—were recurring topics at the annual meeting of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.

"We try to meet those issues head-on and deal with them, rather than just stick our head in the sand and hope they go away," said Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the AASV.

Dr. Burkgren and other swine veterinarians characterized some of the concerns as the agenda of activists, who are appealing to consumers to support causes such as allocating more space per pig.

A ballot initiative in Arizona, for example, seeks to ban gestation stalls. During its spring meeting, the AASV board approved a resolution to support the opposition Campaign for Arizona Farmers and Ranchers.

Dr. Burkgren said the AASV meeting also serves as a forum for informing members about developments in the science of swine welfare and antimicrobial usage and about ways to improve the care and well-being of pigs.

The 2006 meeting featured a session about swine welfare and a pre-conference seminar about antimicrobial usage, along with many other speakers who presented information on these issues.

Swine welfare  

Dr. Michael Dykes, vice president for government affairs at Monsanto Choice Genetics, touched on welfare in his presentation about public policy issues at one of the industrial partners' sessions. 

Dr. Dykes said activists want to eliminate stalls for farrowing as well as gestation. He said the activists also hope to ban tethering, eliminate confinement housing entirely, add restrictions to the transportation of live animals, and change the handling and stunning requirements in the Humane Slaughter Act.

"Some of these may make things better for animal production," Dr. Dykes said, but he added that many of the legislators in Washington, D.C., have no idea what happens in a modern swine unit.

Dr. Paul Sundberg, vice president for science and technology with the National Pork Board, kicked off the welfare session with his presentation on the Swine Welfare Assurance Program.

Dr. Sundberg said science is one of the tenets of SWAP, which the Pork Checkoff Animal Welfare Committee began developing in 2000 and released in 2003 as a voluntary education and assessment tool. In 2005, the committee evaluated the program with input from other participants in the pork production chain.

A new version of SWAP will probably roll out in 2007, Dr. Sundberg said. Nevertheless, he assured the audience, producers will still be ahead if they start SWAP without waiting for the revisions.

Dr. Angela Baysinger, vice president of on-farm food safety for Farmland Foods, spoke on auditing animal welfare.

She said voluntary welfare programs aren't enough assurance for everyone. Restaurants and retailers, under pressure from activists and consumers, are pushing pork producers to conduct audits of animal welfare.

In response, the AASV and other organizations founded the Professional Animal Auditing Certification Organization in 2004 to oversee auditor training and certification, starting with the category of animal welfare.

"You don't want someone out there who doesn't know anything about swine farms and has no experience in the field auditing your facility," Dr. Baysinger said.

She said PAACO held its first training session in February at packing plants, following guidelines from the American Meat Institute.

Dr. John Deen of the University of Minnesota Swine Center, chair of the session on welfare, also discussed audits during his presentation on welfare decision making.

Dr. Deen described a divide between animal agriculture and everyone else, with a lack of mutual respect for the real people on both sides. He said auditing animal welfare is the result of this sense of distrust.

He said welfare is difficult to define, though. Individual measurements do not indicate the overall welfare of animals. So he encouraged swine veterinarians and pork producers to participate in the debate about if and how to conduct audits.

The welfare session concluded with presentations on the topics of space allocation and pain control.  

Antimicrobial usage

The subject of antimicrobial usage also arose during discussion of public policy and the session on welfare. 

Dr. Dykes said another policy that activists are promoting is restriction of animal health products—particularly low-level antimicrobials. Dr. Baysinger predicted that antimicrobial usage would someday be the subject of audits.

During one of the industrial partners' sessions, however, Dr. Scott Hurd of Iowa State University said antimicrobial usage for purposes other than disease treatment might actually benefit public health, despite the risk of microbes developing drug resistance.

Speaking on "Healthy pigs, safe food," Dr. Hurd admitted that the routine use of macrolides in food animals might lead to additional human cases of resistant Campylobacter infection. But he said the opposite scenario is that more subclinically ill food animals would go to the processing plants, leading to many more human cases of nonresistant Campylobacter infection.

Also, during the session on emerging diseases, Dr. Randall S. Singer of the University of Minnesota spoke on "Emergence of antibiotic resistance across bacterial and animal populations."

Dr. Singer gave an overview of the topic, and he suggested that more studies on the subject are necessary to weigh the risks and benefits of routine antimicrobial usage.