OWENSBORO, Kentucky––The American public on February 20, 2014 learned more about pig feeding and porcine epidemic diarrhea than almost anyone wanted to know.
Humane Society of the U.S. investigators working undercover at Iron Maiden Farms in Owensboro, Kentucky in early 2014 expected to videotape the use of gestation crates to keep nursing sows almost immobilized. The HSUS team accomplished that––and also documented the deaths of more than 900 piglets in two days from a porcine epidemic diarrhea outbreak.
The dead piglets’ intestines were then pureed and fed back to their mothers and other sows. HSUS contends that this practice, though common in industrial pig farming, violates the Kentucky Swine Health Protection Act. The act prohibits feeding untreated refuse other than “household waste” to pigs The Kentucky Livestock Coalition, representing agribusiness, posted to Facebook that feeding dead piglets to sows is a “widely-accepted and veterinary-recommended management practice.”
American Association of Swine Veterinarians executive director Tom Burkgren told Eliza Barclay of National Public Radio that so-called “controlled exposure” is the only method that farmers have to strengthen pigs’ immune systems against porcine epidemic diarrhea. The disease is caused by a coronavirus for which there is no vaccine or effective drug treatment. Infected adult pigs sometimes survive; piglets rarely do.
Hitting pigs throughout Europe in 1969-1971, porcine epidemic diarrhea appeared in Japan about 15 years later, erupted in China in 2004, jumped to the U.S. in April 2013, and spread into Canada in January 2014. By mid-March 2014 the outbreak had killed as many as five million pigs in the U.S. alone, by some estimates, and had somehow reached Colombia. Purdue University extension economist Chris Hurt put the U.S. toll significantly lower, at 2.7 million, based on data including sales volume and the pigs-per-litter rate, but concluded “No one knows for sure what the death losses have been, or what they will be in the future.”
The vaccine maker Zyme Fast Inc., of Springfield, Manitoba, engineered a vaccine that has been used to control porcine epidemic diarrhea in China since 2011, and hopes to have a version available for use in Canada before summer, Zyme Fast president Terrence Sellen told Murray McNeill of the Winnipeg Free Press in early March 2014. Several other companies are reportedly working on vaccines for porcine epidemic diarrhea, but are a year or more away from putting them on the market.
Meanwhile, said HSUS senior director of veterinary policy Michael Blackwell, “Keeping animals in a distress-free environment would help their immune systems. Porcine epidemic diarrhea is a sentinel of the system not being in the best interest of the health of the animals.”
The HSUS exposé of Iron Maiden Farms was released two days after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced that veterinary epidemiologist Nancy de With, of Abbotsford, British Columbia, had begun investigating whether feed made in part from pigs’ remains might be helping to spread porcine epidemic diarrhea
“As a precautionary measure,” the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said, “on February 9, 2014, Grand Valley Fortifiers issued a voluntary recall of certain pelleted swine nursery feed products containing porcine plasma. Testing has determined that porcine epidemic diarrhea virus was present in samples of U.S.-origin plasma obtained at the 3rd-party manufacturer for Grand Valley Fortifiers. This plasma was used as an ingredient in feed pellets produced by the company. Testing with a swine bioassay has determined that the plasma ingredient contains porcine epidemic diarrhea virus capable of causing disease in pigs. Further testing will be done to assess if the feed pellets are capable of causing disease in piglets.”
Commented Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases moderator and Texas A&M University professor Tam Garland, “This sounds amazingly like the start of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). Remember? Ground-up cow parts were fed back to cattle to increase their protein intake. It took years for the disease to manifest itself at a rate that caused alarm.
“How is mixing porcine plasma into the feed not a violation of the Code of Federal Regulation, CFR Title 21: part 589.200, which is a mammalian to mammalian feed ban?” Garland asked.
The first test results reported about whether ingesting infected feed could cause porcine epidemic diarrhea were ambiguous. “The CFIA has not reported official results of its tests,” wrote Lisa M. Keefe in the March 3, 2014 edition of the trade journal Meating Place. “However, a summary published by the USDA, dated February 21, says that CFIA has conducted preliminary tests with five samples of complete feed and five samples of porcine plasma alone…Those that were fed only porcine plasma did have porcine epidemic diarrhea present, although only ‘a couple of pigs’ actually became ill.”
Testing done by the USDA itself and at the University of Minnesota did not produce infected piglets, Keefe said. The Iron Maiden Farms investigation also found, as expected, neglect of sick and injured sows, HSUS reported, “including one sow who suffered from an extreme uterine prolapse for nearly two days before finally dying, and lame sows––whose hind legs became too weak from strict confinement to support their weight––‘hobbled’ to keep their legs from splaying. Their legs were bound together so they could stand in their crates. Some sows had tight hobbles on for so long that the rope had cut into their flesh or had grown over the rope hobble.”
HSUS released the Iron Maiden farm findings about three weeks after Wendy’s International Inc. told pork supplies that it would now require them to submit quarterly progress reports on their progress toward phasing out use of gestation crates. Wendy’s in 2007 introduced a purchasing policy that favors crate-free pork producers, and in 2012 committed itself to buying pork only from crate-free producers by the end of 2022.
Smithfield Foods in January 2014 asked all contract sow growers with whom Smithfield does business to phase out the use of gestation crates by 2022. Smithfield stopped short of making the phase-out mandatory, but said growers who do not comply are “less likely” to have their contracts extended. Smithfield owns about 460 pig farms in the U.S. and contracts with about 2,100 others.
In Canada, the National Farm Animal Care Council in March 2014 ordained that, “For all holdings newly built or rebuilt or brought into use for the first time after July 1, 2014, mated gilts and sows must be housed in groups.”