Made in Maine: Thoughts on Food, Animals, and Agriculture

This Little Piggy

By Donald E. Hoenig, VMD

2 young pigs; photo by Edwin RemsbergOne snowy December a number of years ago, I witnessed three large (400-500 pound) sows fall through the floor into the manure pit of an old dairy barn in Turner, Maine, while they were eating stale donuts. It was about a 10-foot fall, but fortunately none of the pigs were injured and once we realized that, we were quite amused by the whole situation. Nonetheless, they were now enclosed in the manure pit of a barn that had been boarded up for the winter. My colleague and former Maine Department of Agriculture employee Dr. Chip Ridky and I were herding the sows together, getting ready to blood test them as part of the state’s disease certification program. The sows had pushed aside several of the floor boards, which were not nailed down, and fell. Now we had to figure out how to get them out of the pit. The farmer got out his chain saw, cut a big hole in the plywood wall and we lured the pigs out of the pit (with more stale donuts) and went on with the catching and blood testing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about pigs lately because I’ve been helping some Maine swine farmers work through a variety health issues in their animals over the past few months. In addition, a devastating disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) that was detected in the U.S. a year ago has many of us on edge. In just over a year, PEDv has been found in 30 states (fortunately not in Maine yet) and has killed more than 7 million baby pigs. Maine has tightened its import requirements for swine this spring in an attempt to keep the disease out.

The issue of swine welfare has also been in the news in recent years because of a housing method widely used in the raising of pigs called gestation crates. After sows are bred, they are often placed in gestation crates for the duration of their pregnancy. These crates allow the sows to stand up and lie down freely, but do not enable them to turn around. They are provided with ample food to meet their metabolic needs and free-choice water. One of the main reasons that swine farmers began using these crates decades ago was to reduce the incidence of fighting among sows. Sows can be extremely aggressive to each other when grouped together and fighting can often result in serious injuries. On farms that use gestation crates, sows will spend their entire adult lives in this type of confinement, which is why the practice has been so controversial.

To be honest, I’ve never seen a gestation crate other than in pictures because I’ve never been on a swine farm in Maine or Massachusetts that uses them. Most of our swine farmers do use something similar called a farrowing crate, but it is only used just prior to the time that a sow gives birth through weaning (usually about 3-4 weeks) and helps protects the baby pigs from being crushed if the mother sow inadvertently rolls on top of them. In 2009, while I was the State Veterinarian, a bill came up in the Legislature, proposing to ban gestation crates in Maine. Interestingly, there was minimal opposition to the bill from Maine swine farmers because none of them were using gestation crates. Our swine farmers have always group-housed their sows, which allows for full freedom of movement except for the time spent in farrowing crates. The bill passed and gestation crates have been banned in Maine since Jan. 1, 2011.

Several other states — generally those that do not have a significant swine industry, including Florida, Arizona, California, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio, and Rhode Island — have also banned, or plan to ban, the use of gestation crates. A large number of major U.S. companies, including Smithfield (the country’s largest pork processor and hog producer), McDonald’s, Campbell’s Soup, Tyson, Costco, and Target have all announced they will eliminate gestation crates from their pork supply chains (USA Today, Jan. 7, 2014). Smithfield has asked contract growers to end the use of gestation crates by 2022.

Have you ever thought about this issue? Do you think sows should be able to stand up, lie down, and turn around freely? Do you buy your food based on a company’s adoption of certain humane or ethical principles? Are you willing to pay extra for this food? If you do, how sure are you that these principles are being followed? A topic for another column, I think.

It may make me sound like a politician, but my thinking has evolved on this and many other issues surrounding farm animal welfare. I’ve come to believe that the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare serve as a good foundation: Freedom from hunger and thirst; Freedom from discomfort; Freedom from pain, injury or disease; Freedom from fear and distress; Freedom to express normal behaviors. I believe that the fifth freedom — for an animal to express normal behaviors — applies in this case, and I am glad that the swine industry is moving toward eliminating gestation crates. I’m also glad that I still get to work with many swine farmers. They’re great people and I’ve gotten some interesting stories out of those experiences.

Dr. Hoenig retired as the Maine State Veterinarian in 2012 and, after completing a year-long Congressional Fellowship in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington DC last year, in January 2014 he started working as a part-time Extension Veterinarian for University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Dr. Hoenig invites you to submit questions and comments to Answers to selected questions will appear in future blog posts.