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The Challenges of Delivering & Explaining Pig Welfare

by 5m Editor
19 September 2005, at 12:00am

By John Deen, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota - Pig welfare has two distinct challenges. The first is, of course, using the capabilities and resources that we have, and using them in a cogent and responsible manner when we care for the pigs. This aspect of pig production is integral to the regular decision-making that goes on in all aspects of pork production, whether it be veterinary care, marketing, nutrition and the day to day decisions of stock persons.


John Deen
College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Minnesota

The second challenge with welfare is in relating and discussing this care of animals to a suspicious public. For animal agriculture, the criticisms often leveled against common rearing practices have created challenges to not only reassessing these practices but also the relationship of animal owners with society.

I would argue that, in the past, the burden of proof in discussions of farmed animal welfare has been with the critics of animal agriculture. In other words, the model of interaction between the public and agriculture has been one of trust in the intent and skills of the caregivers. With changes in society, along with an increased concentration of ownership and decision-making in agriculture, the “trust me” argument has slowly disappeared.

There are two main ways to replace of the “trust me” option. The first is a regulatory response, where a limited number of expectations of animal agriculture are legislated and policed. Though such an approach is evident in the European Union, similar initiatives are few in other countries. There are many arguments against legislating methods of care. The most obvious argument is that there is a biased towards easily measured outcomes. There is a predominant bias in evaluating housing methods as they are constant and obvious. Whether inadequate housing is the major failure when animal welfare is poor has been argued and it is obvious that there are many other concerns as well. 1

The second responds is a formalization of animal care procedures along with measures of process and outcomes. In other words, the delivery of animal care should be transparent as to what efforts are being made to ensure an education of caregivers, a delivery of adequate resources, and a validation that the education and resources are being used correctly and judiciously. This latter emphasis is more difficult to legislate and yet it is easily argued has the potential of being much more efficacious in providing animal care at a level that caregivers and society expects.

Not only is there are complexity in the methods and objects of measurement, there is also a complexity in what constitutes an acceptable level of welfare for farmed animals. There are many components of care in addressing the needs of animals, and it is difficult to prioritize their delivery. This is due to the lack of comparability and also the due to the lack of linearity in effects of inputs, with the law of diminishing returns being a common case. The lack of linearity means that the benefits of supplying the first 50% of an input, such as feed, may be more than the last 50%. In the case of limited resources we should emphasize a wide range of needs to meet an adequate level rather than trying to maximize the responds to a minimal number of needs.

The “five freedoms” are a historic effort to identify the wide range of needs of animals. They were developed out a review of the welfare of farmed animals in intensive farming systems, usually called the Brambell Report 2. The five freedoms read:

  • Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • Freedom to express normal behavior
  • Freedom from fear and distress

For veterinarians, the five freedoms should be relatively familiar aims in the care of farmed animals. Access to water and a proper diet are central to care. Shelter from the environment and adequate resting area have been aims of building design. Prevention of disease and injury along with timely treatment are consistently emphasized in veterinary care. The last two aims of normal behavior and absence of fear and distress are discussed with less frequency, but facility design and interaction with humans are gaining more emphasis in animal care discussions. However, it failures are also easily recognized on farms. In all farms newborn piglets die due to a lack of inadequate milk availability, weanlings succumb to systematic infections, and gilts are intimidated by older sows.

The use of the term “five freedoms” is much more prevalent in European discussions than in the United States. This may be due to the fact that “freedom” is termed as an absolute in American political discussions. Indeed, it has been suggested that it may better be discussed as the five needs.3 This definition of the five freedoms as an absolutist approach has also been contraindicated by an author who helped develop the five freedoms, Dr. John Webster:

"When put to work by comparing different housing systems, the five freedoms are an attempt to make the best of a complex situation. Absolute attainment of all five freedoms is unrealistic. By revealing that all commercial husbandry systems have their strengths and weaknesses, the five freedoms make it, on one hand, more difficult to sustain a sense of absolute outrage against any particular system such as cages for laying hens or stalls for sows and easier to plan constructive, step by step, routes towards its improvement."4

In as much as the five freedoms are not absolutes, they do provide guidelines in developing care of farmed animals, and much of the research and welfare has been in keeping with the outlined aims of the five freedoms. Producers, responds in priorities may differ in tone. An example is the US pork producer code of practice

Producers take pride in providing proper care for the swine on their farms. They consider management and husbandry practices for good swine care to include the following:

  • Providing facilities to protect and shelter pigs from weather extremes while protecting air and water quality in the natural environment

  • Providing well-kept facilities to allow safe, humane, and efficient movement of pigs

  • Providing personnel with training to properly care for and handle each stage of production for which they are responsible with zero tolerance for mistreatment of swine in their care

  • Providing access to good quality water and nutritionally balanced diets appropriate for each class of swine

  • Observing pigs to make sure basic needs for food and water are being met and to detect illness or injury

  • Developing herd health programs with veterinary advice

  • Providing prompt veterinary medical care when required

  • Using humane methods to euthanize sick or injured swine not responding or not likely to respond to care and treatment in a timely manner

  • Maintaining appropriate biosecurity to protect the health of the herd

  • Providing transportation that avoids undue stress caused by overcrowding, excess time in transit, or improper handling during loading and unloading5

Such a prioritization is focused on care giving and caregivers rather than the state of the animals. It argues that there is a preset and comprehensive basis of knowledge in which adequate care for swine can be delivered. To develop this further, the National Pork Board has created a formalized assessment in which the following areas of emphasis have been chosen:

  • Herd Health and Nutrition

  • Caretaker Training

  • Animal Observation

  • Body Condition Score

  • Euthanasia

  • Handling and Movement

  • Facilities

  • Emergency Support

  • Continuing Assessment and Education6

These have been defined as care and well-being principles under which a number of different assessments of pigs in procedures can be made. Outcomes range from the level of fear response in pigs to proper and prompt methods of euthanasia. The aim of this program has been to train assessors, of which the majority is veterinarians, to interact with producers and assess the level of compliance with expected levels of care.

The emphasis in this assessment has been in the examination of animals and interactions of caregivers with animals. This emphasis is different from some assessments in that it de-emphasizes facilities and SOP’s. The argument must be made that no one set of technologies can be ascribed to animal agriculture to provide expected levels of care. Conversely, it is impossible to guarantee a level of care by eliminating a specific technology. Discourse and reinforcement are needed to improve care.

Though early in the process, a few general observations can be made of the welfare assessment program. Many veterinarians and producers have embraced it as an opportunity to learn and improve. Other producers and veterinarian have resisted, many because they still feel that they merit a higher level of trust from society. Most have found that there are areas that require improvement. One large area is the lack of prompt euthanasia of pigs. Many caregivers are reluctant to euthanize pigs and many lack the proper tools. Another common concern is the high level of mortality in sows.

The most difficult, and yet the most promising, aspect of this procedure has been the increase in discourse on the subject of swine care. Though there is a basic agreement on the need to address the five freedoms, the interpretation and prioritization of these freedoms varies widely among producers and between producers and critics. Many of the producer concerns, as illustrated by the care and well-being principles, emphasize severe conditions in a subpopulation of animals. This includes mortality, morbidity, poor condition and injuries. In other words, there is a real concern about individualized care and consistent delivery of veterinary interventions. Conversely, concerns from outside the farm often focus on systematic change such as housing or transportation methods. Both are needed, and yet it is the farmers that may have a better understanding of the shortcomings on their farms.

References/Suggested Reading

1. Edwards, SA, Robertson, JF, Kelly, M. 1990. The influence of housing research on welfare legislation. Pages 65-74 in AJF Russel, CA Morgan, CJ Savory, MC Appleby, TLJ Lawrence, eds. Farm Animal Welfare-who writes the rules? 23 ed. British Society of Animal Science.
2. Brambell, FWR. 1965. Report of the Technical Committee to Enquire into the Welfare of Animals Kept Under Intensive Livestock Husbandry Systems. ed. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London.
3. Gregory, NG. 1988. Animal welfare and meat science , New York : CAB International, c1998.
4. Webster, J. 2003. Assessment of Animal Welfare: the Five Freedoms, http://www.afac.ab.ca/fivefreedoms.htm
5. National Pork Board. 2002. Swine Welfare Fact Sheet, Vol. 1(1).
6. National Pork Board. 2003. Swine Welfare Assurance Program. 2003 edition, p II.

Taken from website September 2005

University of Minnesota