At odds over welfare

Swine veterinarians describe disagreements with AVMA
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Speaking during the opening presentation at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, Dr. Daryl Olsen, a past president of the AASV, told fellow swine veterinarians he does not think the AVMA is respecting their opinions on animal welfare and expressed frustration with the situation.

Dr. Olsen
Dr. Daryl Olsen (Photo by Greg Cima)
Dr. DeHaven
Dr. Ron DeHaven

“I know swine veterinarians are the redheaded stepchild, but I’m still a veterinarian—a part of the team—and would like my opinion heard and respected,” he said. “But if we continue down this path, I’m afraid there will come a day when the AVMA will no longer be an ally to swine veterinarians and the AASV, and, you know what? That really hurts me.”

Three AASV leaders—Dr. Olsen, another past president, and the current president—said during the March 1-4 meeting in Dallas they see growing contention over welfare issues, particularly the use of individual stalls to house pregnant sows. The other past president, Dr. Rodney “Butch” Baker, indicated he sees the conflict as one between the AVMA Animal Welfare Division and veterinary organizations focused on food animal species.

“It’s really creating a rift between those of us that are involved in producing food and veterinarians that are involved with companion animals,” he said.

Room for debate

Dr. Ron DeHaven, AVMA executive vice president and CEO, attended the meeting and said afterward that, while it was clear the speakers expressed some angst, he was not aware of any specific animal welfare policy disagreements. He spoke with Drs. Olsen and Baker after their presentations and thinks their comments mainly reflect concerns about what they have heard could happen in the future regarding policymaking.

He has heard similar concerns from colleagues in other areas of food animal medicine, he went on to say, and is not surprised that there is a diversity of opinions on livestock care and housing among the AVMA’s 85,000 members. He stressed, however, that AVMA policies are science-based, with consideration given to economics and social values, and emphasized that the AVMA seeks food animal veterinarians’ opinions through positions on councils, committees, and task forces.

“But, just like any professional endeavor, there is room for debate and differences of opinion,” Dr. DeHaven said. “I think it is these differences of opinion that have led to the perception among some of our swine colleagues that their opinions aren’t respected.”

Importantly, according to Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division, “Differences of opinion exist not only among the various practice segments that make up the AVMA but even among veterinarians within each practice area. As a result, reaching consensus can be difficult.”

Dr. DeHaven also said AVMA staff have less influence in setting policy than suggested by Dr. Olsen’s comments. Staff members gather scientific background materials, but it is the Animal Welfare Committee’s 18 volunteers, not staff, who set the committee agenda and make policy recommendations to be considered by the AVMA Executive Board.

Dr. DeHaven has encouraged staff to express professional opinions, “making sure the committee members know the difference between the background information staff provides versus professional opinion from staff.”

According to Dr. Golab, “Virtually every issue we deal with is contentious, and we often find ourselves caught between those within the profession who believe the AVMA’s welfare-related policies are too aggressive and those who believe they are not aggressive enough. As the visible face of those policies, the Animal Welfare Division recognizes that it will often be subject to criticism.”

Ultimately, however, the division’s role is to support decisions by AVMA’s volunteer leaders.

“Within the context of that role, Division staff is fully committed to ensuring that veterinarians are seen as the absolute best resource for advice on animal welfare,” she said.

Expertise, respect, and deference

The swine veterinarians’ meeting March 1-4 in Dallas followed two years during which dozens of national and international retail companies vowed to gradually stop buying pork derived from pigs born in the U.S. to sows kept in gestation stalls, which, according to the National Pork Board, are typically 2 feet by 7 feet individual housing for pregnant pigs. And little more than a week before the meeting, the Humane Society of the United States distributed video it said showed abuse at a Kentucky hog farm that, as the HSUS noted, uses gestation stalls.

Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the AASV, said the disagreements between AVMA and AASV are not insurmountable. But he worries that the AVMA has begun to drift away from the AASV’s evidence-based welfare positions and toward popular opinion.

He cited the pending proposal from the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee that the Executive Board revise the policy “Pregnant Sow Housing” in a way that—while the AASV can “live with” it—he thinks could be interpreted to promote eliminating gestation stalls. The policy currently states, in part, that all sow housing systems have advantages and disadvantages, and the AVMA encourages research into housing that can improve sow welfare. While the AVMA and AASV can agree to disagree on some issues, Dr. Burkgren said, he would like deference for swine veterinarians’ conclusions—or for their advocacy to become an AVMA priority—when the AVMA makes decisions on gestation housing and other “foundational” issues.

The draft policy was developed by a five-member topic subcommittee that was led by an AASV representative and included another food supply veterinarian and three other veterinarians with a range of views. The draft revision more directly addresses how much space pregnant sows should be given, compared with the current policy, and was sent for the Executive Board’s consideration only after it was voted on by the entire Animal Welfare Committee.

Dr. Tom Burkgren addresses the AVMA Executive Board during discussion of federal legislation on egg-laying hen housing in 2012. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

The AVMA’s support for the Egg Products Inspection Act of 2012, which would have required housing egg-laying hens in larger, enriched environments, also hurt the AVMA-AASV relationship, Dr. Burkgren said.

In the February 2012 vote to support the bill, the Executive Board had considered opinions from the AVMA Animal Welfare, Animal Agriculture Liaison, and Legislative Advisory committees. The welfare and legislative committees indicated the legislation was consistent with AVMA policies, and the welfare committee suggested it would improve hens’ lives. The agriculture committee, however, like the AASV, opposed the bill because of the possibility that its passage could have set a precedent for legislating animal welfare standards for food animals.

Board members agreed that the new standards were likely to improve animal welfare, and they took into consideration the fact that the egg industry supported the bill.

Dr. Michelle Sprague, who became AASV president March 4 and is a member of the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee, said in an interview that she also has seen the AVMA and AASV grow apart on welfare issues and suggested that this is possibly a “natural progression” as a rising percentage of AVMA members have limited experience with livestock.

”As a profession and as an association, we really hope to be recognized as experts in our field,” she said. “We want the respect of other veterinarians who sometimes don’t understand what it is we do or maybe forget that we went through the same curriculum and took the same oath.”

Asked about the AASV president’s and past presidents’ comments on respect, Dr. Burkgren said he thinks some AVMA volunteers and staff perceive that agriculture-oriented veterinarians are biased by close ties to agriculture industries. Although he sees those ties as a strength, he worries that this perceived bias decreases the weight given to a swine veterinarian’s opinion during discussions.

Veterinarian oversight

Dr. Baker said in an interview that he and colleagues pushed in the 1970s and ’80s for clients to move sows indoors and into stalls to protect the animals from the dangers of Iowa winters and aggression from other sows, as well as to improve management, piglet survival, owner and employee safety, and production. With the combined changes in swine housing, the survival rate of neonatal pigs, for example, has since risen from less than 50 percent to more than 85 percent.

Dr. Olsen also described veterinarians as the most influential profession on swine farms, giving them the ability to make changes and the responsibility to give correct advice.

“If there is something wrong with the industry, with pork production today, no other group has the ability or the influence to change it more than the AASV,” he said. “We helped design it.”

Swine veterinarians have been doing what they see as right for pigs, Dr. Baker said, and they want to discuss and solve the disagreements with AVMA. But livestock-focused veterinary groups could conceivably leave the AVMA, a result he would hate to see.

Dr. Burkgren thinks the AVMA and swine veterinarians can overcome differences through communication, respect, and understanding that agriculture veterinarians and other veterinarians face different issues.

On the final morning of the meeting, AVMA president Dr. Clark K. Fobian said he had heard at AVMA meetings the same perspectives on swine housing, transportation, and antimicrobial use that he heard from the swine veterinarians. While swine veterinarians are a small part of AVMA’s membership, he noted that AVMA has volunteer positions reserved for them, and their voices are vital to the AVMA.

Related JAVMA content:

Flood of pork buyers want sow housing changes (Nov. 1, 2012)

Welfare Implications of Gestation Sow Housing (Jan. 31, 2014)