"Feedback" a symptom of producer desperation

Feb 28, 2014

A recent undercover animal rights video at a hog barn sought to deal a blow to the pork industry. What it did was underscore the dire situation faced by hog farmers as Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv) cuts a swath of destruction through populations of North American piglets.

On Thursday, Feb. 20, the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) released an undercover video taken at a Kentucky hog farm. The dark, blurry, and heavily edited video showed, among other things, piles of dead piglets. One shot included a worker gutting a dead piglet. The male voice-over of the claimed videographer said that the intestines of piglets killed by PEDv (not directly named in the video) were routinely ground into a “sort of smoothy” then fed back to the sows. The video neglects to explain the practice for what it is and why it’s being done.

While inarguably disturbing and far from appealing, the practice—called “feedback”—is a testament to the dire nature of the situation. Rather than the barbarity of cannibalism utilized by a torturous, greed-motivated industry as HSUS would have audiences believe, feedback is a desperate move by farmers with no other choices to hopefully save future piglets from certain death.

“There’s no question that people may be put off by this treatment,” said Dr. Tom Burkgren, Executive Director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and a member of the Center for Food Integrity’s Animal Care Review Panel which reviewed the video. “But PEDv is wreaking havoc out there on the farms and ‘feedback’ is the only control method we have found to be effective.”

“This process is universally recognized as having real efficacy in reducing the number of pigs that are dying,” agreed Dr. John Deen of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, another member of the panel.

Effectively, the process takes the weakened, dead or dying viruses still in the piglets’ tissues and uses them to expose sows to the virus to activate native immune responses; a crude approximation to vaccination. As the death loss of piglets to the virus now exceeds 4 million, farmers and veterinarians are scrambling for anything to stimulate resistance in sows so that they might protect future litters of piglets.

Another version of the practice involves spraying a watered down mixture of infected piglets’ diarrhea into sows’ nostrils.

“Federal funding for animal health research is virtually nonexistent. It’s almost a perfect storm. This is a virus that was unknown in the U.S. prior to April [2013] and the characteristics of the virus don’t lend themselves to research and development,” explained Burkgren regarding why no actual vaccine exists for the devastating disease.

“Is it better to save pigs’ lives and improve their welfare or to say this is too ‘icky’ and just let the pigs die?” asked Burkgren. “That’s what it comes down to because there is absolutely no other alternative.”

The undercover video claims the disease is the result, or at least tied to, intensive indoor farming practices. While in keeping with HSUS’ message against what it calls “factory farms” and gestation crates, the experts disagree.

“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 practicing swine veterinarian in Kansas, another member of the panel. “I work with all sizes of farms and they are all dealing with the same issues. It’s just more dramatic when you have 5,000 sows instead of five sows.”

While necessary, Tokach noted the feedback process is hard on those involved.

“I’ve worked with people on these types of farms and it’s traumatic for them to do this. But they accept the fact that it can get the problem under control in a matter of weeks instead of the disease running its course for several months. People need to realize it’s being done to minimize the death loss.”

Dr. Candace Croney of Purdue University and the final member of the panel who reviewed the video, offered her thoughts on the ethical question of the practice.

“The aesthetics of what is happening here should not be the sole consideration although it is hard to get past that. The real ethical question is whether the industry should refrain from using the crude procedures currently available to stimulate immunity to the disease because of the high ‘ick’ factor that is involved. Where is more harm done under these specific circumstances? It would seem to create an ethical problem if a farmer did not use the tools available to potentially save animals simply because of how the procedure might be perceived. It would be a different situation if the discussion was about doing this routinely or killing healthy piglets to do this or putting animal or public health at risk. That’s simply not the case here. It’s a tricky situation created by lack of scientifically sound alternatives and a case of emergency. The aesthetics and potential negative public perception simply compound the issue.”

About PEDv

As mentioned, PEDv was first discovered in April 2013. Since then, it has killed more than 4 million pigs in 23 states and has recently spread to Canada. It is especially virulent and spreads easily. North Dakota State University Extension Service Swine Specialist David Newman said it can take just one infected pig to risk an entire state’s hog farms.

“It is critically important for everyone around swine to use proper biosecurity methods,” Newman said. As far as scientists know at this point, the virus spreads through fecal contamination, meaning anything that has come in contact with feces from infected hogs is a potential pathway of the spread of infection. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is currently investigating the possibility that swine feed is spreading the virus, as well.

Older pigs can survive the disease, which causes severe diarrhea, dehydration and vomiting, but in newborn and especially young piglets, it is nearly 100 percent fatal.

Newman noted that the first week of February had the highest increase in new cases since the virus was discovered. He also reminded producers and consumers that while PEDv is devastating to the nation’s hog herd through piglet mortality, it does not affect humans and does not affect the safety of pork. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor