Editorial: Insult Heaped on Infection

3/1/2014 7:00 AM
By Dennis Larison Editor

There’s an old saying about sausages. If you like to eat ’em, don’t watch ’em being made.

Lately, that saying could be extended beyond the processing plants that make the sausages to the farms where pork, the main ingredient, is raised.

And it’s one of the usual suspect raising the stink — the Humane Society of the United States, or HSUS — assisted by New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof.

It’s become common for HSUS to feed Kristof an advance copy of its latest undercover video so he will write a column that in turn will focus more attention on the video’s release.

On Feb. 19, the Times published a Kristof column titled “Is That Sausage Worth This?” just the day before HSUS was to release a video that, according to Kristof, “pulls back the curtain on the banal brutality of a huge hog operation in Kentucky called Iron Maiden Farms.”

The “ick” factor in both the column and the video is a recent practice that pork producers have adopted to counter porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PEDv, which has been ravaging the swine industry the past 10 months by killing millions of newborn pigs.

To fight the epidemic, pork producers have begun feeding the excrement and sometimes ground intestines of dead pigs to their brood sows to build up the sows’ immunity to the disease, which is then passed on to subsequent litters of pigs.

“This process is universally recognized as having real efficacy in reducing the number of pigs that are dying,” said Dr. John Deen of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, one of the animal welfare experts enlisted by the Center for Food Integrity to review the claims made in the video.

Had the video and introductory New York Times column focused solely on the infection, the review panel’s job would have been a lot easier.

“Is it better to save pigs’ lives and improve their welfare or to say this is too icky’ and just let the pigs die?” said Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, another member of the panel.

“That’s what it comes down to because there is absolutely no other alternative,” Burkgren said.

But the video and column went beyond the method of treatment to try to link the disease to the gestation crates and indoor confinement at the farm, what Kristof called “a life sentence of solitary confinement in a coffin, punctuated by artificial insemination and birth.”

Here are some of the panel’s responses to some of the assertions HSUS made in the video:

“Claims that the infection rate is greater on so-called factory farms’ than on other farms and that smaller farms don’t use practices like feedback’ are just wrong,” said Dr. Lisa Tokach, a panel member and practicing swine veterinarian in Kansas.

“I work on all sizes of farms, and they are all dealing with the same issues,” she said. “It’s just more dramatic when you have 5,000 sows instead of five sows.”

As to claims that the gestation crates are driving the sows insane and causing them to squeal loudly and bite the rails of their stalls, Dr. Candace Croney, a panel member from Purdue University, pointed out that loud squeals and bar-biting are common swine behaviors during feeding time.

Other panel members agreed that the behaviors shown in the video are commonly seen in all types of housing systems.

“The assertion (in the video) is that intensive agriculture leads to more disease and the development of new pathogens such as swine flu,” Deen said. “That contradicts current research and the current understanding of disease emergence.

“For instance, the claim that biosecurity is better for animals housed outdoors is just wrong,” he said. “To say that transmission of disease between farms increases with intensification of production is unsubstantiated.”

As for claims that the stalls lead to higher rates of injury and that enforced inactivity causes lameness, Tokach said, “We have research showing the opposite is true — the injury rate is actually lower in intensive housing systems.”

All this leads one to wonder when the public is going to wake up to the fact that HSUS’ constantly crying wolf has more to do with that organization’s goal of discouraging people from eating meat than it does with animal welfare.

In reviews of other undercover videos, the Center for Food Integrity and its Animal Care Review Panel have not hesitated to condemn clearly abusive practices, at times criticizing the operators even more harshly than news media reports.

The center and review panel deserve kudos from farmers of all stripes for taking the time not only to right abuses but also, when needed, to blow the whistle on the so-called whistle-blowers.

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