In the early ‘80s, agriculture was going through a financial crisis. I graduated from veterinary school in 1980, worked as an employee in a mixed-animal practice for 3 years, and then hung out my shingle as I started my own practice. One clear memory I have from those days is the anguish of some of my clients as they faced bankruptcy and loss of their farms. There were many veterinarians facing similar conditions. A long-time veterinarian in a neighboring practice told me “It breaks my heart to watch good farmers go out of business.”
As I recall this conversation, it reminds me of another comment I’ve heard: “Show me what breaks your heart and I will know where your passion and purpose lie.” For my colleague, his passion and purpose were his clients and their livelihoods: the animals under their care. In light of this train of thought, I cannot help but consider the pressures coming to bear on farmers and swine veterinarians. One of these pressures is animal welfare.
Animal welfare seems to be a favorite subject within the marketing departments of many grocery chains and restaurants. Specifically, the type of housing for gestating sows has caught the fancy of the corporate suites. Of course, people in these corporate suites actually care very little about the sows themselves. They are not concerned about the science and practice of welfare in determining what is best for the pig. The corporate focus is almost entirely on maximizing the value of the company stock for their stockholders. Their purpose is to sell one more burrito, and then the next, and the next, ad infinitum! They are not in the pig welfare business. Sow housing is just one vehicle to drive sales.
On the contrary, those directly involved in the care of pigs have a hard time understanding how a corporation, far removed from the farm, can arbitrarily decide what is “best” for pigs and dictate production practices on the farm. The dissonance arises between the passion and purpose of farmers and swine veterinarians, and the corporations’ reduction of sow welfare to nothing more than a marketing tool to sell their products.
Don’t get me wrong, I am in favor of a free marketplace. However, I also believe in an efficient marketplace where demand for product attributes can signal and lead to changes in production practices that present a subsequent financial reward for the farmer. Dictating changes in production practices merely because “I say so” does nothing to motivate the producer when pig welfare needs are already being met in the current housing system in place on the farm.
The other trap the corporations have fallen into has been purposefully set by activist organizations opposed to the use of animals for food. The issue of sow gestation stalls is merely a tactic in the incremental battle against animal agriculture. Through a strategy of forcing an unneeded change and the resulting financial burden upon farmers, these organizations hope to decrease the number of farms raising pigs for food. The profession of veterinary medicine is not immune to the same strategy and tactics.
Recently, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) published a commentary by Dr Barry Kipperman. This commentary criticized the AVMA for not taking a more aggressive position against individual gestation stalls. Dr Kipperman brought forth no new science or data to support his assertion. Many of his references were not from peer-reviewed publications. Dr Kipperman is apparently not an expert in swine or animal welfare. He is a small-animal veterinarian who has stated that we can improve farm animal welfare by “eliminating personal consumption of animal products such as meat, eggs and milk.”1 He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association(HSVMA). The HSVMA was created by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and later merged with the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights. The HSVMA continues to be closely affiliated with and financially supported by the HSUS. The HSUS has a long-standing campaign against individual gestation stalls as part of its long-term strategy to end animal agriculture.
Dr Kipperman and the JAVMA editorial staff failed to provide transparency and clear context when publishing the commentary. I tried to shed light on this failing in my subsequent letter to the JAVMA editor. However, my letter was heavily edited by the outright deletion of nearly 25% of the content and an extensive alteration of the remainder. The result was a letter that did not accomplish all I had desired and certainly raised questions in my mind about journalistic objectivity during the editing process.
The outright ban of gestation stalls will not result in better welfare for sows, but it is sure to deprive farmers and veterinarians of the option to choose the type of housing that best fits a specific farm and production system. As swine veterinarians, it is up to us to continue to advocate, as much as possible, for the pig. Doing what is right for the pig never goes out of style. It is not an effort for promoting political or social change, nor is it a fund-raising or marketing campaign. Pig welfare is a fundamental duty and responsibility of the farmers and veterinarians who provide daily care of the animals entrusted to them. It breaks my heart to think that large corporations and animal rights organizations will dictate production practices on the farm, needlessly threatening the welfare of pigs and putting farmers out of business.
1. Kipperman B. Why small animal veterinarians should care about farm animals. Commentary. dvm360. 2013;May 2103:36-42.
Tom Burkgren, DVM Executive Director