Sustainability applies to ALL aspects of animal production, including handling and welfare.
Recently a video was released by Mercy for Animals (MFA), an advocacy group for animal rights, of an undercover investigation of Pennsylvania’s largest pork producer, Country View Family Farms (CVFF). CVFF is a large corporation, producing hundreds of thousands of hogs for Hatfield packing. The cooperation of CVFF and Hatfield to produce pork products for human consumption is the primary method of production and marketing in the agricultural industry, with the minority exception of beef production. As a result of this common practice, much controversy has erupted over the years. The video released by MFA illustrates many of the problems with mass production of animals, as well as abuse that can occur within these types of facilities. HOWEVER, this video does not account for WHY some of these seemingly horrible practices are permitted in the first place.
I would like to take this small space of public domain to break down the events and environments recorded in this video, in an attempt to differentiate ABUSE from HUSBANDRY.
Please take a short moment to view the video before we proceed (WARNING: this video depicts animal husbandry that is NOT supported by the agricultural industry. Some of the scenes in this video are graphic in nature.)
Now, to start, I would like to separate the ABUSE from the HUSBANDRY.
ABUSE: throwing, dropping, slamming in to walls, untreated wounds.
HUSBANDRY: picking up animals by their back legs, castration, tagging, tattooing(that one is a bit of a toss up in this case, explanation will come later), farrowing crates, gestation crates, gas chamber, captive bolt gun (’steel rod’ as cited by MFA)
The abuse that occurs in this video is surrounded by the lack of care paid to the animals by the employees, and NOT by standard operating procedures. Throwing an animal like a football, tossing them into a steel cart, or slamming their heads in to a wall is NEVER acceptable, and it never will be acceptable. Piglets do need to be taken care of, and their handling consists of just that, picking up the animal, performing a procedure, grouping them, sorting them, etc. However great care should be taken of how the animal is handled, to ensure that its physical safety and health is maintained, as well as keeping the piglet under as little stress as possible. Piglets are often handled by picking them up and carrying them short distances by their rear legs, this is a method of handling the animal calmly and efficiently. When piglets (or chickens, lambs, calves, foals, kids(goats)) are handled by their legs, or have their legs restrained, it is for their own safety. Their legs are very powerful, and thrashing them about can cause unnecessary injury , and can result in more pain and distress than actually restraining the animal.
Castration at a young age is not only a common practice across every livestock industry, it is very necessary. Piglets are typically castrated within a week of birth. It has been shown that during this time, the piglets body is actually better able to heal itself, as well as feel minimal pain. The castration performed in this video on the piglets is very routine, and no abuse is shown taking place during the ACTUAL castration procedure. The herniated piglet that is shown as a ‘result’ of the castration is not common. As seen in the video, a hernia is when the small intestine escapes through a hole in the body wall, and does occur more commonly in male animals. In this case, it is more the fault of random genetics that causes a few unlucky piglets to suffer this fate.
Tagging and tattooing of animals is necessary for accurate record keeping in these industries. Tagging occurs in many forms in the pork industry, however the most effective methods are ear tagging and ear notching. Ear tagging is the same concept as piercing your ears. Humans WILLINGLY have a dull metal peg shoved through their ears, belly buttons, eyebrows…and many other very sensitive areas…for impractical purposes. Piercing a sow’s ear with a numbered tag for efficient identification can hardly be considered abuse, particularly because it does not hurt for more than a few seconds. Ear notching is a technique that removes portions of the ear in a number/location coded sequence that can be used for identification of the animal. This method is not the most efficient method, as the notches can be difficult to distinguish, and easily misread; however, it also involves minimal pain and remains with the animal for life, making further retagging an option, but not a necessity in most cases. Tattoos are another form of permanent ID for animals, and are often associated with government mandated vaccinations and site identification. Tattoos are typically used in conjunction with tagging, and in most cases, are placed in the ear. The method of tattooing by hammer (for lack of a better term) as seen in this video, I will admit, I have never seen before, and am not completely sure how it works. It does appear to be stressful on the animal, but more that the pigs are startled from the sudden hit, rather than by pain induced from the tattoo prongs.
Farrowing crates and gestation crates are another hot topic, and quite controversial. My person perspective on their use is that they should be a management tool rather than a housing unit. Farrowing crates are necessary to protect the piglets and allow for their efficient growth. A farrowing crate is purposefully constructed to restrict the movement of the sow so that she cannot accidentally roll or flop onto them. Because of a pigs structure, their short legs and heavy bodies (typical sow weighs about 600lbs) they cannot ease themselves gracefully onto the ground. Rather, they start to lower them selves, and then finish the movement by ‘flopping’ their heavy bodies onto the ground. When living in the wild, piglets commonly get laid on by their mothers and are suffocated to death, the farrowing crate is designed to minimize this occurrence, and give the piglets an escape route when mom decides to lay down. Gestation crates are much harder to justify. I have worked in a barn that used gestation crates, and I have worked in a small barn that used open pens. In both cases, the animals seemed comfortable and relatively happy, but, I could not ignore the intense behavioral differences exhibited by the crated sows. When living in gestation crates, these sows do not get out to exercise and are incredibly bored, exhibited by bar biting, facial rubbing, and rooting. Pigs are sedentary animals, and spend most of their time sleeping, however when the need to explore does strike them, it is beneficial for them to be able to move freely about their environment, even if it is just to turn around and see what is behind them. Movement is also good for their general health and physiological condition. A gestation crate can be beneficial in simple management of the animal because of fighting and breeding practices. In my opinion, although it is not abusive, the benefits do NOT out weigh the costs. A number of the untreated wounds (shoulder sores, sore hocks, feet, facial sores..etc) are a result of the crate, HOWEVER there are practices that can be utilized to minimize their occurrence as well as treatments to heal them when they do occur.
Finally, gas chamber and captive bolt gun (’steel rod’, as quoted by MFA) are tools for stunning or euthanasia of animals that are: experiencing extended and unnecessary pain, terminally ill, or otherwise not productive. Both methods are approved as humane methods of euthanasia by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and are effective when utilized correctly. The application of these methods in this video are certainly questionable, however it is a video, and all of the surrounding circumstances are unknown. A full description of proper application of all euthanasia methods can be found in the AVMA Guidelines for Euthanasia: http://www.avma.org/issues/animal_welfare/euthanasia.pdf.
The release of this video, and many like it, are open wounds and doors in the pork industry, and agriculture as a whole. Abuse is not sustainable. Animals DO NOT produce well when they are unnecessarily stressed. Crate sores, untreated wounds, and handling caused injuries all contribute to inefficient production, which is the basis of sustainability. By treating livestock animals with care, we maximize their productive capabilities and increase survivability in an already intense growing environment. Lower mortality rates means less animals need to be produced to meet the demands of the consumers and less meat is wasted because of poor quality (major effect of stressed animals, quality of meat plummets). Proper handling, adequate treatment, and ample attention to animal health, comfort, and care are all steps that need to be taken to avoid abusive situations as well as maintain efficient and sustainable production of pork. The wound of abuse has been opened, and exposed, once again. However this opens the door and encourages all agricultural industries to look more closely, once again, at their procedures, to be sure that all animals are being produced efficiently, sustainably, and within the code of animal welfare.
Please do not hesitate to post questions, I will be happy to answer them. And if I don’t know the answer, please be assured that I will find it for you.
For more information on this video, and steps that were taken by CVFF, please go to: http://www.countryviewfamilyfarms.com/ and follow the links on the homepage.
For more information on MFA: Please go to: http://www.mercyforanimals.org/November 22nd, 2009
Topic: Agriculture and Sustainability Tags: None