Animal welfare groups go to great lengths to show us how "the sausage" is made inside the factory-style farms that produce most of our meat. For the past few years, they've armed activists with video cameras and sent them undercover to document alleged abuses or risky practices.
On Thursday, the Humane Society of the U.S. released its latest video — a look at how one hog farm in Kentucky is dealing with porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PEDV. The fast-spreading virus has killed more than 2 million piglets in 25 states in the U.S. since April 2013.
Let's just say it isn't pretty. (The video is available on the Humane Society's website, but we should warn you that it's very, very graphic.)
In this video, we learn what happens to the piglets at Iron Maiden Hog Farm in Owensboro, Ky., that succumbed to the virus: The animals' intestines are ground up and fed, as a "smoothie" — as HSUS dubs it — back to the sows, which could be their own mothers. (The exact size of the farm is unknown, but the barn shown in the video houses about 2,400 sows.)
"It's beyond disturbing seeing piglets being prepared for this process," the unidentified narrator, an HSUS activist, tells viewers. "It seems obvious that confining pigs in such an environment that causes open sores, extreme stress and filthy living conditions would only encourage the spread of disease."
Before we see the pile of dead piglets, we're shown how the sows at Iron Maiden are confined to narrow stalls that severely limit the animals' movement. No surprise here — these gestation crates are common in the industry, and animal welfare experts have long called on farmers to do away with them. (Many big producers are now moving away from the crates, as we've reported.)
But the HSUS says the practice of feeding dead pigs to live pigs is illegal in the state of Kentucky and may violate federal law, too. The Swine Health Protection Act prohibits feeding untreated garbage, which could be animal material, to pigs, unless it's "household waste."
"Pig factory farms are not 'households,' and killing piglets is not a 'household operation,' " HSUS Vice President Paul Shapiro tells The Salt.
But hog farmers and veterinarians say that while feeding the guts (or stool) of dead piglets back to sows may sound icky, it's the only option they've got to keep the dreaded PEDV from decimating herds and the whole of the U.S. hog supply.
In a statement posted on Facebook, the Kentucky Livestock Coalition, a group representing farm groups in the state, called it a "widely-accepted and veterinary-recommended management practice."
Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, says that there are no vaccines or drugs to give to sows so their piglets won't get the lethal virus. That means the only tool farmers have is "controlled exposure," or feeding the remains of sick piglets to sows.
What's more, he says, "controlled exposure" has been used for decades to protect animals against rare diseases. While PEDV has been in the U.S. for only one year, the technique appears to be working against it, he says.
"When I'm faced with the choice of seeing and carrying hundreds of dead baby pigs out of a barn or overcoming the 'ick factor,' I'm going to get over that 'ick factor,' because my goal is to save lives," Burkgren says. (Burkgren adds that mother pigs sometimes cannibalize their babies like this on their own — he's seen it on farms where pigs are confined and also ones where they're allowed to pasture.)
But the HSUS points out that there's a higher risk of infection in large industrial hog operations like Iron Maiden, compared with smaller farms that raise their pigs outdoors. And Michael Blackwell, senior director of veterinary policy for HSUS, says farmers do not necessarily have to resort to feeding pigs to pigs to prevent the spread of PEDV.
"Keeping animals in a distress-free environment would help their immune systems. PEDV is a sentinel of the system not being in the best interest of the health of the animals," Blackwell told reporters in a press conference. "We know we have limitations in the system in terms of inadequate space and nutrition."
As for HSUS's allegations of general abuse of the sows at Iron Maiden, Brent Burchett, a spokesman for the Kentucky Livestock Coalition, told The Salt in an email: "I have personally toured this farm. ... After watching the video, I believe it does not reflect the values of the producer in question."