Advocacy in action
Raising pigs without antibiotics

The American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) Board of Directors addressed the issue of antibiotic-free production during their recent meeting in Perry, Iowa. Veterinarians serving on the association’s pig welfare and pharmaceutical issues committees raised concerns regarding pig health and well-being in antibiotic-free production systems. The committees considered issues associated with concerns that animals requiring antibiotics may not receive timely treatment under certain antibiotic-free production strategies.

Dr John Baker, a private practitioner from Indiana, brought the issue before the committees in a letter raising concerns about production practices he was observing in the field that risked animal health and well-being. A market for pork raised without antibiotics has arisen in response to retail perceptions indicating a consumer demand. It is becoming increasingly common to see restaurants and retailers touting products “raised without antibiotics.” As a result, some processors are offering an economic incentive to farmers to raise pigs without the use of antibiotics in the hopes of filling this demand. Consumers are often misinformed regarding the use of antibiotics on the farm and any risk that they may pose to human health from eating pork.

There was not much debate within the committees. Although accepted that, under certain circumstances, it is possible to raise pigs without antibiotics and that antibiotics must be used judiciously, the members stressed that animals that need to receive antibiotics to prevent or treat disease should be treated. The timely treatment of sick animals is a standard of proper animal husbandry promoted by veterinarians and supported by America’s swine farmers. Some antibiotic-free systems, however, do not provide marketing options for the animals that do need antibiotic treatment. This disincentive may lead to delayed treatment or the failure to treat altogether. Members of AASV consider this to be unacceptable from the standpoint of proper animal health and well-being.

Dr George Charbonneau, AASV president, commented that, “the AASV is committed to sustainable pork production. Maintaining the health and welfare of the pigs that are in our care is a top priority. We recognize there is a market for pork that is raised without antibiotics. It may be necessary, however, in any production system to provide timely and judicious antibiotic treatment in order to avoid animal suffering. Consequently, every antibiotic-free program should have the ability to sell antibiotic-treated pigs through an alternate market after a safe withdrawal time.”

First and foremost, swine veterinarians speak for the health and well-being of the pig and the promotion of public health. While consumers may request that pigs be raised a certain way, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in the best interest of the pig or even food safety and public health. It is important that we reinforce the basic tenets of livestock production that are paramount to animal health and well-being, particularly when those tenets are ignored for reasons of economic gain and market access. Accepting increased morbidity and mortality, delaying or withholding necessary treatment, or failing to perform timely euthanasia are unacceptable.

In response to these concerns, the AASV board has adopted a position statement regarding raising pigs without antibiotics. The position statement is shown in the box below:

Any pork production system that is marketing pigs raised without the use of antibiotics should closely involve veterinarians in the management of herd health. If a pig is sick, or is at risk of getting sick, it is our responsibility as swine veterinarians to prevent or treat illness in a judicious manner to maintain animal health and welfare. Farmers should have an alternative marketing plan in place for pigs that need to be treated with an antibiotic.*, It is important that the decision to treat or euthanize is made in a timely manner so as to minimize the pig’s pain or distress.

*If an animal has been treated with antibiotics and proper withdrawal times are followed, the meat is safe for consumption.

† Marketing programs should not prevent a farmer from treating or preventing illness.

As Dr Baker put it in his letter, “swine veterinarians should promote responsible antibiotic use in pork production and lead the pork industry in educating the public. To do otherwise means we have failed in our responsibility to lead the industry on matters of animal health and welfare and have failed the animals in our care.”

Harry Snelson, DVM