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Smithfield veterinarian aims to connect dots on animal welfare

Animal welfare can mean different things to different people. For Mary Battrell, DVM, a swine veterinarian for Smithfield Foods, animal welfare is the connection between animal health, well-being and performance; and optimizing that connection improves productivity.

“We care about our animals,” Battrell told Pig Health Today. “A healthy hog makes a healthy product.”

While veterinarians and producers see animal care as a moral obligation, it’s more difficult for consumers to understand the management practices — like castration and tail docking, for example — used in modern pork production. That’s partly because such a small percentage of people have an agricultural background, Battrell said.

“We’re seeing that with our new hires, too,” she added. “They don’t come up from a hog background, and we have to take time to explain and train on basic animal-husbandry skills.”

Smithfield helped create and has adopted the common swine industry audit to address consumer concerns. As Battrell explained, it’s a systematic approach to evaluating the environment, the health and well-being of the animals, and how they’re cared for. The company has 10 full-time staff members who audit farms, in addition to external auditors for third-party verification.

The auditors help validate the Smithfield animal-care program and provide customers and consumers the assurance that “we’re doing what we say we’re doing,” Battrell said.

Putting their money where their mouth is

Many perceive group housing as preferable to individual sow pens. Individual pens are the predominant housing system in the US. With this in mind, Smithfield committed to converting company-owned farms to group-housing systems by the end of 2017, and the company met that commitment. All of Smithfield’s contract farms are recommended to also convert to group sow-housing systems by 2022.

It was an expensive endeavor — a $360 million investment — and it took additional personnel training, but Battrell said they’ve learned how to manage animals in that type of system.

“The animal is brought out of the farrowing house, she’s put into a stall and she’s bred there,” Battrell said. “We do a pregnancy check and then when she’s confirmed pregnant, we move her into group housing.”

“Anytime you make a change, you have to figure out the best way to do it, but that was something our customers and consumers wanted,” she added.

Consistent care across the system

It’s one thing to provide consistent care in company-owned facilities, but it’s more challenging when hundreds of contract growers are involved, spread out over hundreds of miles. To maintain a strong commitment to animal welfare from all parties, Smithfield spends a significant amount of time training contract growers and their employees on animal care. Production specialists are assigned to farms, which they visit once a week or once every 2 weeks. They do a standardized site visit and create a service report.

“We also have a hot line,” Battrell said. “If anyone ever witnesses abuse or neglect, they can anonymously call Smithfield and our animal-care coordinator will visit the farm in question within 24 hours.”

Mitigating pain and meeting consumers’ expectations

Pain mitigation is important in terms of animal welfare. There has been a lot of attention to this topic in the context of traditional procedures on modern hog farms such as tail docking and castration.  Battrell said Smithfield is constantly working on research projects to develop alternatives to mitigate pain. For example, on some farms, Smithfield uses a castration alternative that is proven to be safe and effective.

One of the ironies in the animal-welfare discussion is that many consumers who express concern about how pigs are raised also feel antibiotics shouldn’t be used in livestock production, seemingly forgetting that animals get respiratory and enteric diseases, just like humans do.

Smithfield has adopted judicious-use principles recommended by the FDA. “Our veterinarians decide what products we’re going to make available, and we have instructions on timing and dosage,” Battrell said. “I always tell my people, ‘If the pigs develop diarrhea, you can treat it, but the next step is to ask: Are they warm? Are they dry? Are they draft-free?’ We have to investigate why.”

If an animal needs treatment, Battrell said she — and all veterinarians — have a moral obligation to take care of that animal.

“Another important step is sharing with consumers what producers are doing to care for their animals,” Battrell stressed. Pork producers should tell consumers: “We care about our animals, we’re trying to take good care of them…, and a healthy hog makes a healthy product as well,” she said.




Posted on August 14, 2019

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