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Inaugural IMAWRC meeting targets ‘best science’ approach to animal welfare

by 5m Editor
24 February 2004, at 12:00am

US - A roster of some of the top scientists and researchers in livestock handling and animal science told attendees at the industry’s first-ever scientific conference on animal handling that "there are no easy answers to developing animal welfare strategies" that effectively balance ethics, economics and consumer demands.

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Nonetheless, it is clear that scientific research must pave the way for advances in animal welfare, the conference’s moderator said, and progress on such research is best supported in the kind of collective effort represented at the conference.

"A sustained dialog on important animal handling issues will translate into a better understanding of the science surrounding livestock welfare," said Randall Huffman, AMI vice president of Scientific Affairs, who served as moderator for the inaugural International Meat Animal Welfare Research Conference held here last week. "By setting aside the emotions associated with what at times are highly charged issues and focusing on scientific research related to animal welfare, I firmly believe we can make the best decisions and achieve the most progress."

The IMAWRC meeting, which was co-sponsored in collaboration with AMI by the Federation of Animal Science Society, attracted more than 90 industry specialists and researchers, who heard presentations from nine, expert speakers discussing animal welfare during livestock production, transportation and processing.

A summary of the highlights:

Public perceptions continue to shift.
Keynoter Jeff Armstrong, Ph.D., Michigan State University, described how public perception of the meat industry has changed as society has evolved from its agricultural roots and as activist organizations impact public opinion, both in the United States and worldwide.

Armstrong’s takeaway message was straightforward: "Collectively, the meat industry and the research community must be part of the solution by working together and by implementing science-based guidelines focusing on welfare, economics, food safety and consumer concerns."

Assessing invasive procedures in swine.
Tina Widowski, Ph.D., University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, reviewed the science on four invasive practices used in piglet processing:

  • Teeth clipping: This is a practice that is generally not used.

  • Tail docking: A common method used to prevent tail biting. Research is limited and the short- and long-term effects on pigs are unknown.

  • Castration: This is done to prevent boar taint and to reduce behavioral problems from intact males. The research shows indication of acute pain from this process, and likely some chronic pain later in life.

  • Ear notching: A common method of animal identification, little research on the pain associated with ear notching has been done.

Widowski concluded that all the above procedures involve some pain to the piglet, with the degree of pain in many cases unknown. She recommended that costs and benefits be carefully considered for each procedure, with the goal of developing and refining techniques for effective pain reduction.

Transport issues for pigs.
John Mcglone, Ph.D., Texas Tech University, provided an overview of transport effects on the behavior and physiology of pigs; the impacts of weather and truck configuration during different seasons; and the effect of human handling during loading and unloading.

Mcglone provided data indicating that transportation is a stressful event for pigs, especially when the air temperature rises above 75 degrees F. Above that temperature, there is a significant increase in death of pigs, arriving at the processing plants. He presented data to show that pigs undergo significant changes in physiology and behavior during transport and the associated handling, noting that there are real opportunities for improvement in handling on the farm, during transportation and upon arrival at the plant.

Matt Ritter, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, presented a relatively new definition of non-ambulatory animals:

NAI : "Non ambulatory, injured"
NANI: "Non ambulatory, non injured"

Ritter indicated that no solid data on the prevalence of these two classifications of pigs is available, although FSIS data shows the rate of "dead on arrival" (DOA) pigs is about 0.25 percent. Ritter described a study showing a strong correlation between DOA and non-ambulatory pigs. Moreover, data show that NANIs are not simply related to handling but are likely affected by multiple factors associated with stressors on the farm and during handling and transport.

Non-ambulatory pigs are a significant animal welfare issue and economic issue, Ritter concluded and the industry needs more research. However, by applying existing knowledge and practices about handling the incidence can be reduced.

Issues related to sow gestation housing.
Ed Pajor, Ph.D., Purdue University, described the current science and controversies surrounding gestation sow housing and the pros and cons of both gestation crates and "group housing" as they relate to floor feeding, trickle feeding, feed stalls, electronic systems, group size issues and type of flooring.

Pajor highlighted the discrepancies in the scientific literature regarding comparative production data on the two systems. For instance, a 1991 review of 15 research studies comparing group housing to stall housing showed eight group systems with better reproduction and four stalls with better reproduction.

"This issue will continue to be contentious," Pajor stated, and proper stockmanship and husbandry -- along with economics and management -- will remain the focal point of future research.

Source: American Meat Institute (AMI) - 23rd February 2004

5m Editor