Protecting pigs, cultivating consumers

Consumer perceptions, swine welfare, and effective practices among American Association of Swine Veterinarians' priorities
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Dr. Peter Davies said people working in animal agriculture are being portrayed as villains and profiteers of an unsustainable and unacceptable system.

Illustration: Pig and shopping basket

The professor of swine health and production in the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine said that while producers have been busy putting food on plates, they have become distanced from the public.

"Now we have few people farming, few farms raising hogs," Dr. Davies said. "Our public is estranged from the livestock industry. They don't know how farms operate."

He said critics attack animal agriculture from sociologic, ethical, health-related, and environmental platforms.

"The problem is: There's something there for nearly everyone," he said.

Dr. Davies was among presenters at the 41st annual meeting of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians who talked about the impact of persistent criticism of animal agriculture and what veterinarians can do to counter ignorance and misinformation. Other topics included porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, the novel H1N1 influenza virus, swine welfare, euthanasia, and bacterial disease.

About 930 veterinarians, veterinary students, guest speakers, and technical-table representatives attended the meeting March 6-9 in Omaha, Neb.

Dr. Paul D. Ruen, who became the AASV president March 9, said in the opening session that the meeting was intended to improve veterinarians' take-home knowledge and problem-solving skills. He said swine veterinarians are proud to help farmers, improve food safety, and do what is right for pigs and people.

"Doing what is right for the pig drives us to improve," Dr. Ruen said.

"CAFO is a four-letter word"

Dr. Davies said that because of criticism and misconceptions about confined animal feeding operations, "CAFO is a four-letter word."

However, Dr. Davies said, "Pork … in the USA now is demonstrably safer than anytime in the past." Taenia solium, Trichinella spiralis, and Toxoplasma gondii have been nearly eliminated in U.S. swine, which is a substantial public health accomplishment that is not given enough attention.

Veterinarians need to show that their clients' operations and their own practices are consistent with contemporary values and to take the debate over animal production to a nuanced level, Dr. Davies said. He thinks veterinarians also need to understand that farms performing poorly will be the ones shown to the public and that swine veterinarians can be easily discredited.

"We're only as good as our worst performance," he said.

Dr. Paul R. DuBois of Cameron, Okla., said that if veterinarians avoid changing practices until change is forced on them, they will lose credibility and the opportunity to define their future. People enjoy pork products, but they have concerns and questions about animal care and handling.

Food production rules are being shaped on the basis of emotion, he said, citing as examples referendums and laws regarding confinement animal housing.

Veterinarians need to base their arguments on science but must also provide a message with emotional impact, Dr. DuBois said. He said they need to be ready to phase out practices for which they cannot explain the benefits in emotional terms.

Dr. Rodney "Butch" Baker, 2009-2010 AASV president, said in an interview that critics caused the biggest challenges for the swine industry in 2009.

"By bringing the animals indoors and creating biosecurity, we've truly eliminated about 15 diseases and parasites we had back to the 1980s," Dr. Baker said. "There's nothing wrong with raising them outdoors, but we look at survivability and welfare, and most of us believe that the confined animal operations provide a much better opportunity for the animals."

But concerns that the novel H1N1 virus may have originated in confined animal feeding facilities caused substantial losses for producers, even thought the virus had not been identified in North American pigs prior to the pandemic, Dr. Baker said.

Doing isn't implementing

Dr. James F. Lowe, a co-owner of Carthage Veterinary Service in Carthage, Ill., encouraged colleagues to make sure their tasks are improving pig health.

"Doing is not implementing," Dr. Lowe said. "Implementation is getting the pig to feel it. Doing is acting busy."

If nobody can measure the impact of an intervention, "nothing happened," he said. Measurement—whether it involves the number of pigs, the weight of each pig, or the value of the meat—determines the success of an intervention.

Maintaining worker morale

Dr. W.E. Morgan Morrow, a professor in the North Carolina State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, talked about the effect euthanasia of animals in production facilities can have on worker morale.

Caretakers on farms and companion animal owners have some similar reactions to euthanasia, Dr. Morrow said, and production facility employees often try to give the animals in their care a chance to survive. Thus, to optimize worker morale and reduce worker stress, production facilities should work to identify those workers who least strongly object to performing euthanasia on sick animals and train those workers for this task.

Dr. Morrow talked about research involving workers at 47 North Carolina farms and the attitudes those workers expressed toward euthanasia. About 46 percent of workers polled wished they did not have to euthanize animals, but 36 percent said such work was not stressful. In addition, 86 percent thought it was humane to euthanize animals rather than let them die, and 80 percent indicated they would use technology that took longer to euthanize pigs if it were less painful.

Responding to disease

Dr. Jarod Hanson said dysentery is still present in U.S. swine, often as a co-infection. He said diarrhea resulting from co-infection with the organisms that cause dysentery and salmonellosis is often attributed entirely to the latter, and laboratories are not searching for evidence of swine dysentery unless asked.

Dr. Hanson said depopulating a barn to eliminate dysentery requires not only killing the animals but also leaving the building empty for four to six weeks, a huge expense to producers. He also warned that workers and shared equipment can spread the causative bacterium, Brachyspira hyodysenteriae, to newly cleaned barns.

Dr. J. Egan Brockhoff said a client's 220-sow farrow-to-finish farm in western Alberta, Canada, had above-average production and minimal disease prior to becoming the first herd worldwide confirmed to be infected with the 2009 novel H1N1 influenza virus. He said he had visited the farm two or three times annually, and it had looked "awesome" during a visit on April 1, 2009.

But on April 14, a sick carpenter who was later shown to have been infected with H1N1 entered the client's swine barn to work on the ventilation system, two days after returning from a trip to Mexico, Dr. Brockhoff said. The seven production areas in the barn had shared airspace that provided "a great place for influenza to have a party."

The producer noticed increased coughing by the pigs starting April 20, and Dr. Brockhoff notified provincial animal health authorities April 28 following an examination that revealed illnesses. Two of the three Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors who arrived that night became ill, despite wearing protective equipment.

Pigs became ill throughout sections of the barn where the ventilation work had occurred, but clinical signs of the flu were nothing new, Dr. Brockhoff said. Many of the animals were pyrexic, moderately depressed, anorexic, and mildly dehydrated, while two had rectal prolapses.

About 475 finisher pigs were culled May 8 to prevent overcrowding and sent to a renderer. Although the pigs had displayed no clinical signs of illness by June 4, the owner insisted on depopulating the 3,000 remaining pigs because of his inability to sell to markets.

Dr. Amy L. Vincent, a veterinary medical officer in the Agricultural Research Service of the Department of Agriculture, said analysis of eight gene segments from each of 12 swine influenza virus strains found in U.S. herds in 2008 and from strains of the 2009 novel H1N1 influenza virus indicated that the pandemic virus strains differed from the 2008 strains in all eight segments, meaning that the virus was new to U.S. herds.

She said ARS study of the pandemic influenza virus indicated that the virus can easily be transmitted to naïve pigs, causes signs similar to those of other influenza virus infections, and has potential to cause severe pneumonia and disease in some pigs.

Producers returning to profit

Pork producers lost hundreds of millions of dollars because of influenza concerns, market difficulties, and the global recession, but they are starting to see profits again, Dr. Baker said. He remains concerned about the connection between corn and energy production and the impact of energy prices on feed prices.

"We're just one bad global crop year from an absolute food crisis in the world, and we saw that with rising fuel costs and then food costs," Dr. Baker said. "When you connect a foodstuff like corn to energy, we see that, once oil rises above about $80 a barrel, then the cost and the market value of corn follow."

But on the upside, swine veterinarians have tools to fight novel H1N1 influenza infections, and the economy is improving, Dr. Baker said. He thinks 2010 will be a good year for producers, barring any large-scale negative events.