Investigation #6: Bioinsecurities

During the last decade, the American veterinary community and swine industry have pushed pork producers to practice tighter biosecurity measures on American farms.  Changes to industry structure, average herd size, and animal feed ingredients have led to new and complex diseases that often involve multiple viral pathogens and a weakened immune system.  Any confinement operator who has dealt with post-weaning diarrhea and wasting, high mortality rates, or high rates of stillbirth and abortion knows that managing disease outbreaks due to Porcine Reproductive & Respiratory Virus (PRRS), Porcine Circovirus (PCD), mycoplasma, clostridia, and other pathogens requires daily vigilance, foresight, and up-front investment.

Industry experts argue that biosecurity measures are a must and that farmers who fail to biosecure their facilities put the entire American swine industry at risk.  By using biosecure measures, farm operators can reduce the number of new pathogens entering a herd.  Because pathogens are invisible to the naked eye, entirely eliminating their existence is not a reality.  Rather, farmers must learn how to manage diseases that do enter and prevent, to the best of their abilities, new issues from developing. For this reason, facilities attempting to be absolutely pathogen free can sometimes take on an ultra-sterilized, high-security prison-like quality.  Any new supply or person attempting to enter a modern biosecure unit must first pass various biosecurity checkpoints.

You can’t just stop by these wash-in, wash-out operations.  If you are a veterinarian, farm operator, or approved visitor, you might need to change your clothes, borrow company boots, shower in, shower out, and walk through disinfectant.  During your visit you will likely notice extra fencing around the building’s perimeter.  Surrounding trees and hedges are often cleared to increase visibility while simultaneously discouraging birds and other potential pathogen-distributors from setting up adjacent homes. Giant air filtration systems work round the clock to filter out pathogenic aerosols.  Leave your shoes in the designated “dirty” zone, park where you’re told, and be careful not to cough, sneeze, or breathe.

Feed and hog delivery trucks also follow special protocol because transport of any kind, especially of living plant and animal matter, introduces additional risks.  On some farms transport vehicles are completely disinfected before and after delivery.  Newly introduced groups of animals are of particular concern and are often quarantined for a month or more to confirm that they are pathogen-free.  Semen, sick pigs, rats, dust, insects:  there’s a biosecurity guideline for it all. If you’d like to check out a sample of one university’s recommendations see the following link: Biosecurity Recommendations

While, in general, practices designed to prevent pathogen-entry are laudable and a biosecurity plan on any farm shows foresight and concern, I have some huge gripes with the American swine industry’s frequent attempts to market biosecurity as an industrial ag success story.  Too often, the industry tries to set large biosecure confinement units apart from dirtier small to medium sized farms failing to keep up with the latest biosecurity standard.  In some cases, experts even blame bioinsecure small farms, including pasture pig and organic farms, for the continued spread of swine diseases.

While any farm can reduce the biosecurity of another farm and farmers do adopt biosecurity practices to different degrees, I find such accusations both infuriating and perplexing.   This is because large confinement operations are part of the reason all farmers need to practice such stringent and expensive biosecurity measures today.  As animal farms consolidated in the latter part of the twentieth century, commingled hogs exchanged illnesses (this happened with cattle and chickens as well).  Both small and large farms suffered as a result.

Nonetheless, veterinarians are right to encourage large confinement operators to practice strict biosecurity measures.  This isn’t because confinement operators are better agrarians or even more concerned about animal health than their surviving small-farm or pasture pig counterparts.  In fact, research has historically shown that large confinement populations are often less healthy than smaller counterparts. The real reason veterinarians must recommend such strict biosecurity measures within the industry is because raising pigs in large numbers at high densities is 1) inherently risky and 2) inherently stress-inducing.

One pathogen can easily become a risk for an entire one to two thousand member herd, especially when an animal’s immune system is already fighting a stress-filled environment, toxin-coated feed system, and the collective pathogen-load carried by the rest of the herd.  Large operations need to be especially concerned about pathogen entry because the economic stakes in the event of an outbreak are super high.

Which leads me to my second beef with all of this lovely dialogue our ag media churns out about on-farm biosecurity and American Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).  If we are going to tell American consumers that industrial farms are more biosecure than they were years ago and promote the idea that we are more concerned about animal health, then we also need to spend more time openly worrying about the pathogens and negative health conditions we create on these farms.  Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem on both animal farms and in human populations.  Yet, antibiotics continue to be misused to perpetuate productivity and efficiency measures within pork production systems that already call themselves biosecure.  I can say the same for beta-blocking drugs like Paylean, Optiflex, and Zilmax used to promote rapid weight gain right before slaughter.  These repartitioning agents do increase protein gain and muscle mass, but they also put extra stress on an animal’s cardiovascular system, joints, and hoofs.  When used regularly, at high doses farmers have also reported that these beta-agonists can cause hogs and cattle to develop tremors and a generally anxious and agitated state.

While industry-wide bans on products containing ractopmine & zilpaterol (the active ingredients in the above beta-agonists) seem like a no-brainer from a health standpoint, deciding what to do about antibiotics is a trickier issue.  If we ban many of the antibiotics used in current systems without changing the animals’ feed supply and other systematic stressors, the animals won’t fair well.   On the other hand, if we don’t reduce antibiotic use, we will continue to run into similar problems with antibiotic resistance, antibiotic pollution, and, in the case of broad-spectrum antibiotics, poor long-term immunity.

Experts estimate that 70-80% of the registered antibiotics prescribed in the United States are used in animal agriculture.  Many of these antibiotics are used to promote growth and help animals combat stress that could be reduced in other ways (ie. by letting them walk outside, eat healthier feeds, or wean later).  In some cases, antibiotics are also used to treat complex viral illnesses that don’t respond to antibiotics anyway.

Unfortunately, the above figure does not include antibiotics used as pesticides on feed-crops like corn and beans.  In 2011, the FDA reported that  29.9 million pounds of registered animal antibiotics were sold for meat and poultry production (note this number does not include antibiotics used to raise farmed fish or other livestock animals).  Simultaneously our nation used 185 million pounds  of glyphosate – a popular broad spectrum antibiotic-herbicide used regularly to grow animal feed crops.  According to a Global Industry Report, analysts estimate the global commodity crop market will absorb 1.35 million metric tons of this plant antibiotic by the year 2017.   When these glyphosate-treated crops are later fed to livestock animals, glyphosate residues can have an affect on animal health (as I report in America’s Two-Headed Pig).  This herbicide has been linked to a range of health issues that may further weaken an animal’s immune system, driving a need for even more antibiotics!

We can do better.  Antibiotics are, in many cases, necessary and we need to work harder to ensure their continued effectiveness.  But this, of course, will take change.  Below, I describe a few steps we should take to reduce our dependencies on unnecessary antibiotics:

1.  Reduce metaphylactic antibiotics used to prevent expected disease outbreaks. Animals are often mass medicated via their feed or water immediately after they’ve been transported, commingled, or weaned.

2.  Raise the acceptable weaning age of piglets.  In the United States pigs can be weaned at a surprisingly young age (sometimes as early as 14 days).  Antibiotics are often used to combat the stress and disease-onset associated with early weaning, followed by transport to another farm, and a quick introduction to glyphosate treated feeds.

3.  Reduce the international transport of animals and animal products.  Animal transport is one of the most common sources of disease.  It kills me to think that the industry simultaneously promotes the non-regionalized trade and transport of animal products while promoting strict biosecurity measures.  We seem determined to create some of the problems we work so hard to destroy.

4.  Better regulate the number of antibiotic-pesticides (like glyphosate) used on the animal feed supply.  Chemicals linked to bacterial imbalances in the gut and the development of mycotoxin-related feed issues weaken a young pig’s immune system, making it necessary to use even more antibiotics to prevent illness.  Viewed:  August 15, 2013.

Waddilove, Jake.  Production Viruses:  A Global Challenge that’s Costing a Fortune.  Viewed:  August 10, 2013. Viewed:  August 30, 2013.  Viewed:  August 30, 2013.

One thought on “Investigation #6: Bioinsecurities

  1. If the old saying “you are what you eat” is true, it is no wonder so many of us are dealing with autoimmune issues. Eating animals that are so immunologically impaired can not be doing us any good.

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