An article about a hog farm in Owensboro, Kentucky crossed my radar today, and pinged it for all the wrong reasons. The farm, which is attempting to curb the spread of a rather horrible-sounding disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, is in the news because its effort to protect its animals involves grinding up the intestines of dead piglets which have died from the disease and feeding the resulting “smoothie” to the adult sows.
The procedure, called “controlled exposure“, is actually standard practice. It attempts to establish “herd immunity” in an infected farm by exposing all adult animals on the farm to the disease as quickly as possible. (The virus has a mortality rate approaching 100% in suckling piglets, but most adult animals recover without incident.) Since PED is an intestinal pathogen, adult animals are most easily infected by exposure to the “intestinal tract” of “infected neonatal piglets”, which should be “sacrificed” within the first six hours of clinical signs for “maximum viral content”. Once they recover, the now-immune adult sows will pass on antibodies against the infection in their milk to future litters of piglets, keeping those piglets protected from the virus and giving the farm time to perform some serious hygienic measures and actually eradicate the virus.
Okay, so there might theoretically be a point to the farm’s actions. (And note that the swine industry is not the only one that feeds dead animal parts to live ones, either as a medical treatment or as a standard feed additive.) I do, however, note that this paper, from the site of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, recommends that adult pigs simply be exposed to the feces of that poor doomed first wave of sick piglets, as the feces of live piglets contains up to 10,000 times the viral load of the viscera of dead piglets and is therefore a much more effective infectious agent. It is therefore not necessary to grind up the piglets or feed them to their own mothers. And besides, in the words of the above paper, “Collecting viscera is time-consuming and provides unnecessary fodder for the scrutiny of public perceptions.”
The Humane Society of the United States, which broke the original story, points out that keeping pigs in natural conditions is a more ideal way to prevent the spread of diseases such as PED than feeding dead animals to live ones. (It also notes that feeding dead animals to live ones is against state law in any case, although I cannot find that reference online at the moment.) The farm in question is a large factory farm and its sows are maintained in industry-standard gestation and/or farrowing crates, which are noted for providing just as much room as a pig needs to exist (not turn around, not move, just exist) and not an inch more, on the grounds of “protection” for the sows from each other, and for piglets from the vast and frightening bulk of their mother. The sows spend their lives crammed shoulder to shoulder in steel frame boxes the exact length and width of their bodies, churning out litters of piglets. This kind of atmosphere does not promote healthy, happy animals.
Which brings me to what pinged my radar: the name of the farm in question is Iron Maiden Hog Farm. Iron Maiden Hog Farm! I am at a loss to think of a more classless name for a pig breeding operation. I somehow cannot bring myself to believe the facility is named after the band, can you?