In Defense of Pig Farmers

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From: National Review Plus | Economy & Business
By: Elizabeth Wagstrom

A reply in the case of National Pork Producers Council v. Ross

In 2018, well-funded anti-meat activists persuaded California voters of a lie — that almost all of the nation’s over 60,000 pig farmers were guilty of cruelty to their animals and should be forced to change their ways. In October, the Supreme Court will decide in the case of National Pork Producers Council v. Ross whether the law, called Proposition 12, which the activists pushed through the state’s ballot-initiative process, is constitutional. But constitutional or not, if the law stands, pigs will suffer, independent farmers will go out of business, and Americans will pay more for pork.

The Proposition 12 campaign demonized so-called “gestation stalls” that farmers and veterinarians use for protecting sows during the vulnerable days preceding a confirmed pregnancy and after, and as they recover from birthing and nursing. It portrayed these stalls as heartlessly confining — with pigs held for weeks, unable to move in any direction or lie down. A piece recently published at NRO advanced a similar view, and I endeavor here to provide a response.

I am a veterinarian who specializes in pigs, and I am passionate about them. I worked for over a decade as chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council. Pigs are like any social animal. They establish a dominance order, often through violence. Absent outside interference, alpha sows will get more food and thrive while weaker ones get less. A central challenge to hog farmers and veterinarians is maximizing animal welfare and productivity across the entire herd, not just for the dominant.

Research suggests that sows are highly vulnerable to fighting, stress, and injuries during the weeks immediately after conceiving litters and again after weaning them. Individual stalls are important tools for keeping sows safe from harm and properly fed when they are most at risk. Contrary to charges, sows easily lie down in them and move forward, back, and side to side. But they do not have room to turn around. Why? As with humans, food goes in one end and comes out the other. A sow that turns around will likely foul her food and water troughs. Pigs that manage to turn around can also forget how to turn back. Either way, they could end up going hours without nourishment or hydration.

The alternative to individual stalls is group pens. In these, animals move more freely but fighting, injury, and competition for food become serious problems. A particularly alarming way in which sows attack each other is vulva-biting, which often produces deep and bloody cuts. Pile-on attacks from other sows often follow. Injuries are painful, may end all prospects of mating or having piglets, and may even lead to death. Over 15 percent of group-housed sows fall victim to such attacks. Close management can reduce attacks, but only individual stalls can eliminate them. What’s more, injuries can lead to infections and disease, which are particularly threatening to a pig farm.

Bacteria and viruses can also walk in through the front door, which is why farms typically ban visitors. Once introduced, sickness can course through a herd like a flash flood. In 2014, porcine epidemic diarrhea hit more than half of U.S. sow farms. Almost all infected piglets under seven days old died. This is why farmers and workers in a specific barn do not work with pigs from other barns or sites. Protocols for veterinarians that work with multiple herds often require several days of downtime between visits to farms with vulnerable populations of piglets. Yet California is currently assembling an inspector corps to travel the nation from farm to farm to determine if they are California-compliant. These visits could pose the danger of contamination as auditors are unlikely to be able to adhere to downtime protocols, especially if they plan to conduct several unannounced visits weekly.

But the biggest challenge that Prop 12 presents remains the unavoidable social conflict within pig herds. Decades of research have yielded a humanitarian consensus: No one size of pen fits all. If Prop 12 is implemented, certain sows will be denied food, be attacked, and have painful injuries — and some will cruelly die — so that some Californians can feel better about the food they eat. Other Californians will no longer be able to afford pork while many of the independent farmers who produce that pork will go out of business. To produce the food that Americans need at a price Americans can afford, farmers and their states need to be free to choose how to farm for themselves.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court should overturn Proposition 12.