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CoastLine: Animal Well-Being on Hog CAFOs in North Carolina

Wikimedia Commons
Sows in gestation crates

North Carolina is the second-largest pork producer in the United States.  The importance of the industry to the state’s economy – and by extension to the thousands of people whose livelihood it supports – is undeniable.  This is the third edition of CoastLine in our series on hog farming in the state.  In each episode, we’ve narrowed the focus to one aspect of hog production.  We’ve looked at the economics of it as well as questions around environmental justice.  We’ve explored why some scientists say Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – or CAFOs – negatively impact water quality.  And in those earlier discussions, we’ve heard from listeners wanting to know – and talk about how the animals are bred, raised, and treated. 

So today our focus shifts to animal welfare – or animal well-being.  As we’re about to learn, those two terms are not necessarily interchangeable.  Here to help us navigate the world of CAFOs from the point of view of the hogs – are three experts. 


Janet Archer is the Vice President of the National Pork Board.  She’s also a hog grower in North Carolina, and she runs a consulting company that trains and certifies other growers.

Ashley DeDecker is the Director of Production Research for Smithfield’s Hog Production Division.    

Nadia Taha is Investigations Editor for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – or PETA.


Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Janet Archer of the National Pork Board, you also have your own hog farm. What is it that you like so much about the industry and about growing hogs?

Janet Archer: Well, let me tell you a little bit about my background. I didn’t grow up on a pig farm, on any farm. I grew up on the shores of Lake Superior, where it is frigid eight months out of the year. I discovered agriculture, truthfully, in college. I was a biology major going to Michigan State University, and I needed a science class that fulfilled not only my degree requirement but my personal requirement, which was that it didn’t meet at 8 o’clock in the middle of a Michigan winter. And I discovered a swine management class, and I truthfully fell in love. I changed my major immediately. I started working on farms anywhere that would hire me. I loved then and love the animals now. I love the process, and I love the people that work in the industry.

RLH: By far, one of the most often used arguments against the construct of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) is animal wellbeing. Nadia Taha, PETA has investigated hog farms in North Carolina. What has PETA found?

Nadia Taha: In every undercover investigation we’ve done, and it’s been dozens over the 35 years of PETA’s existence, we’ve found that cruelty is rampant. There are 110 million pigs killed for food in the U.S. every year, and they are almost invariably raised on crowded, filthy factory farms. The kinds of violence and suffering we see goes far beyond the scope of the sort of routine management practices that I think Jan and Ashley will argue are done out of necessity and extend to things like animals being beaten with poles, having their eyes gouged, being dragged and beaten while they are lame and down in pain. And so, the best thing that any of us can do who care about animals is simply stop eating them.

RLH: Ashley DeDecker, when you were deciding what to study in college, animal wellbeing at the time was a hot topic. It was an emerging issue. Now you work for Smithfield and that’s the focus of your research. Why does an operation like Smithfield care about animal wellbeing? Is this just a nod to animal rights advocacy groups like PETA or is there something more to it?

Ashley DeDecker: It may be an emerging topic for science, but honestly, animal care has been at the forefront of agriculture ever since we’ve domesticated animals. There’s never been a time that animal care wasn’t the most important thing. And so, as I was choosing to get my PhD, there’s several topics in animal science you can look into, whether it’s nutrition, genetics, reproductive physiology. Animal wellbeing was really kind of a novel area. In the past twenty to thirty years, it’s really become a scientific assessment that you can use on the animals. Unfortunately, there’s no Doctor Dolittle who can go and talk to the animals and tell us what’s going on in our lives. And so, a little bit later, I’ll go into the difference between “animal wellbeing” and the term of “animal welfare” are two very different terms.

RLH: Well go ahead and tell us what the difference is in those terms now.

Ashley DeDecker: They’re used interchangeably, but animal welfare is the most common terminology you hear. But welfare really is the perception, the human perception of how an animal feels, which most of the time is, you walk in, you look at an animal, say, “Well, they look like they’re comfortable.” But that’s your perception. So my perception versus Jan’s perception versus Rachel’s perception is very subjective and very different. And so, we wanted to make it more scientific and objective. So how can we learn about how an animal’s state of being is? State of being really means its level of stress. So what we do in order to detect that animal’s state of being is look for several indicators, such as growth. Typically, as we can see in ourselves and children, we look to see, “Are they growing at a proper rate? Is an adult losing weight?” That could be an indicator that, health-wise, there may be something wrong with them. So we look at growth of the animals to make sure that they’re at the same level as their peers in age. We also look at behavioral indicators. So we can walk into a facility or room, and if pigs are huddling up in a corner, that could be an indicator that it may be slightly cold in there for them. Or if they’re spread out and we see heavy breathing, it may be little too warm. So we can look, based on their behavioral responses, of how to adjust their environment. The third most objective way is to look at physiological responses. There’s a hormone called cortisol, which is called the stress hormone. We can take a blood sample on an animal and determine what that animal’s stress response is. As well as the immune system. We all know, during finals week in college, most students seem to get sick around that time. It’s not because there’s more pathogens in the environment. It’s because they’re stressed out due to studying for finals, and so they’re more susceptible to pathogens. So we can assess those three things: growth performance, behavior, and their physiological state of being to determine animal wellbeing versus perceived animal welfare.

RLH: And aside from having a disease spread through a building and kill the current population of hogs, which of course, would be a financial loss, what else is it about animal wellbeing that matters to, in this case, Smithfield?

Ashley DeDecker: Well, obviously it’s, one, the impact on our employees. No employee wants to see disease go through a building because it is—you can see it in the employee’s emotional state of being for themselves, that that’s not what they want to see. It goes back to animal care. It is our job and our obligation, as animal caretakers, to take care of them and, in any case that we can, help them if that is the situation.

RLH: Janet Archer, you’ve lived in other parts of the world and raised hogs. How different is North Carolina from, say, Singapore?

Janet Archer: Singapore, the hogs were raised in confinement, just as we do here. Probably, technologically, not quite as sophisticated as we have here. I will tell you that the system that we had in Singapore, pigs were raised in pens on slats—whatever fell through, the slats were elevated, the pens were elevated. Ducks lived under there, and they ate whatever was left and they were on the pond in which there were fish. It was certainly a very intensive type of agriculture that responded to a very small piece of land that they were raised on, but the animal care criteria were always the same. It’s always about caring for the animals. Farming is a hard job. It’s physically demanding. It’s difficult. And you don’t do it if you don’t love animals. It’s too much time and effort to spend if you don’t love what you do. Every livestock producer that I know, that I work with, got into it because they love the animals. And in that way, Nadia and I are on the very same page.

RLH: And Nadia Taha of PETA, when you hear that, what do you think? I understand that PETA’s ultimate goal is to get people to stop using animals for food, but recognizing that this is a huge part of North Carolina’s economy and a huge part of North Carolina’s culture as well, what would you like to see change in the hog industry here?

Nadia Taha: What I think when I hear that is simply that if you care about animals, you don’t sell their bodies to be strung up by one leg and have their throats slit so their dying hearts can pump out their remaining blood and life. Regardless of the economic impact. Tobacco farming once drove the economy in the region, but we no longer defend the aggressive and deceptive marketing of cigarettes as a healthcare cure. It’s not a point of pride, and history will not look back kindly on North Carolina’s values when we look at the environmental results and when we look at the moral toll that this massive slaughter takes on our communities.

RLH: That’s a pretty horrific picture that you paint, Nadia. Is this traditional slaughter practice, Janet Archer? What Nadia’s describing, is that something that happens in the hog industry?

Janet Archer: I can’t speak directly to everything that happens at the slaughter plant. I will tell you that there are some YouTube videos online that will basically open the door and show you everything that’s happening on the slaughter plant. But no, their throats are not sliced while they are still alive.

RLH: Before we went to break, Nadia Taha of PETA was describing what sounds like a pretty horrific scenario in which a hog is strung up by its leg, the throat is slit, and it bleeds to death while— Nadia, would you say while conscious?

Nadia Taha: Sometimes. Preferably not, but captive bolt guns, which are the weapon that is jammed into the brain of a pig in order to render it unconscious and preferably dead before its throat is slit, have an unfortunately high failure rate, so quite often these animals are alive while this is happening, yes.

Janet Archer: She’s absolutely right. On the farm, we do use captive bolt, which is the equivalent of something like a .22 rifle, that penetrates the skull of the animal. It is required that they are declared insensible, that they are declared dead. There are some ways that we assess that, whether it’s by touching the eye, looking at respiration rate, or looking at heart rate. The way that we euthanize animals is really, really important and people are trained on that.

RLH: And is that something that you train people on as part of your consulting business?

Janet Archer: No, usually it’s trained—I mean, I will do that, but usually it happens long before I ever get there. One of the trainings that I do is on something that we call the We Care Ethical Principles, and they’re the ethical principles that guide our business, and they guide the business of 4H showman that has two pigs in our backyard or someone like Smithfield who is the largest hog producer in the country. They’re common to all of them. They are that we pledge and we promise we’ll produce safe food. We will take care of our animals. We’ll take care of our employees and treat them with respect. We’ll protect our natural resources. We’ll protect public health. And we’ll make our communities a better place to live. Within that framework, I have used the videos that Nadia’s talking about. They do exist. They’re real, and they’re horrific. Nobody, nobody would ever defend genuine animal abuse. I will say, I actually have to thank PETA because one of the things that’s happened, one of the outcomes from some of the undercover videos— actually, it’s twofold. Number one, when I show those during a training session, people who actually raise hogs are horrified. Just in the way that you might be horrified by child abuse, and then you have a child, and it’s more than horror. It’s a visceral reaction because you see your child in that situation. Same thing with farmers. When they see someone abusing animals, they think, “Oh my gosh, that could be my animal.” And the reaction is visceral. I’ve had farmers leave the room because they can’t see it. But one of the outcomes is we have put video cameras in farms. Smithfield has a lot of farms with video cameras. The theory is that it’s the same thing as a red light camera: It will either catch a problem or prevent a problem, and I would have to thank Nadia and her organization for bringing that to light.

Ashley DeDecker: I just wanted to make a correction to one of Nadia’s comments about using the captive bolt gun in the slaughter plants. Actually, we use CO2 stunning. It is a humane method of euthanasia that renders the animals unconscious before they’re actually eviscerated or extinguished. At that point, they’re unconscious, they do not feel any pain. So I just wanted to make that correction. On the farm, yes, we use the captive bolt gun. But in the slaughter plants, it is CO2 stunning, which is a very humane method of euthanasia.

RLH: We’re getting a lot of questions now about these undercover investigations as they relate to the Ag Gag Bill – that’s sort of the popular use of the term for the law that went into effect on January 21st that makes it a crime to conduct undercover investigations. And Nadia Taha, that’s essentially stopped PETA from doing these investigations. Is that right?  

Nadia Taha: Yes, it has. We actually had a—as yet, unreleased—investigation in process, and we had to, of course, cease all actions on January 21st. Hopefully that won’t be very long. PETA has banded together with a bunch of other organization to take the matter up in federal court, and we do expect to be victorious. Ag Gag is a big problem. It is basically an admission that there is something to hide.

You know, let me just get back to a few earlier points. Respectfully, Janet said that people who raise pigs feel the same way about their pigs that people who raise children feel in terms of how they feel when they witness abuse against these pigs, but again, I don’t think you can make that comparison. We don’t raise our children to sell them to be killed. And that is fundamentally what we are talking about here. This is a violent, mechanized industry that is dependent on speed. The number of pigs that are killed and have their bodies disassembled each minute is vital to turning a profit. You’d have to be awfully naïve to think that there’s a way to do that ethically, whether it’s captive bolt stunning to kill them or the CO2 method, which is also commonly known as suffocating them to death. There’s been a lot of desperate efforts. Ag Gag is one of them. And frankly, with much respect to Ashley and Janet for their work, so is the hiring of experts by the National Pork Board and mega corporations like Smithfield in response to these findings from our investigations. It’s complete white washing. It doesn’t go far enough. The only way to do the right thing and end the violent nightmare of both everyday life and the pain of slaughter for these animals is to stop doing it.

Katie (caller): I’m calling because earlier, I can’t remember who was talking about it, but they were saying, “We have cameras on our farms. People can see videos on YouTube.” I’ve seen a lot of videos from groups like PETA, Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society, that show gestation crates where mother pigs can’t even turn around and also pigs who have been left sick, not provided veterinary care, which logically makes sense because they’re only worth the price of their parts. And then even the humane farms, like a place called Sweet Stem who provides for Whole Foods, they have this huge grassy area, but the pigs never get to even see the sunlight because they’re stuck inside these tents. And I’m wondering, since pigs are as smart as dogs, if not smarter, how we can really justify hurting these animals by saying that, you know, “we promise we’re doing it better” because I think anyone who has gone through the internet or scrolled through YouTube has seen that they’re not doing better.

RLH: Ashley DeDecker, let me ask you about that. It’s interesting that both of you—Ashley DeDecker and Janet Archer—say that you got into this business because you love the business and you love the animals.

Ashley DeDecker: Yep, and that’s what I really want to get back to, is that it is our obligation as animal caretakers to show those animals utmost respect—regardless of what the outcome, whether it is a service animal, whether it is for clothes or for food—it still is our obligation as animal caretakers to provide the care, make sure animal health is well for that environment. There’s a lot of rumors. There’s a lot of misconceptions about the industry.

RLH: Well, talk about the gestation crates that Katie raised.

Ashley DeDecker: I’m really glad that was brought up. It is my job as a scientist to access the animal’s state of being versus the perceived welfare. There has been research after research on gestation stalls and group housing, all the way back from twenty, thirty years ago. It is pretty much agreed upon in the scientific community that both housing systems, whether an individual gestation stall or a group pen for sows, provides adequate welfare or state of being for those animals. There is no difference in animal state of being. And like I’ve said, there’s probably been thirty to fifty publications on that subject, scientific research from across the world that is consistent, that says whether a sow is kept in an individual stall or a group pen, the animal’s state of being is similar between the two of them.

RLH: And when you say state of being, you’re talking about—

Ashley DeDecker: Physiological responses, behavioral indicators, that sow’s productivity. That sow, as she is pregnant, her goal at that time, her physiological response is to maintain that pregnancy. So looking at the number of piglets she has is an indicator of how well her wellbeing is. So we use all those different variables to determine animal state of being. As I said, it’s pretty much an agreement across the scientific community that not one housing system over the other actually improves animal wellbeing. Now, I know that, as Katie was getting to, is the perception of animal welfare, looking at the animals and how she feels about that, but from a scientific standpoint, that animal’s state of being is the same whether it’s in a stall or whether it’s in a group pen.

RLH: Just to carry her point forward, it is difficult, as a human being, to look at another sentient being in a crate when that creature can’t move at all and is pregnant, and think that the creature’s okay. Janet Archer?

Janet Archer: Thank you. I would like to respond to that. And I don’t want to step on Ashley’s toes because I’m going to refer to one of their farms. I visited a Smithfield farm in Utah, and they have what’s called free stalls, so sows have the option of either going into a stall or being in a large loafing area, they can do whatever they want, and 99.9% of the time, they’re in a stall because it meets what their requirements are at the time, which is they want to be in either physical or visual contact with another animal, but they don’t want anybody eating their food, they don’t want anybody attacking them, they want to be left alone, but they’re social animals. They have to be close to other animals. So when left on their own, that’s the choice they make.

Erin (caller): I actually grew up witnessing the hog industry, and my dad actually provided transportation from the hog farms to the slaughterhouse. And I have seen some not-too-pleasant things. I think we overlook the transportation aspect. However, as I’ve grown up, I’ve seen farmers doing it right with pastured pigs and pigs that are outdoors. They’re slaughtered humanely, and I’ll get to “humanely” in a second. And I do think it’s a better operation than CAFO. Now, I have also seen nature take its course. I’ve seen animals slaughtered in the wild, and it is absolutely horrific. From a moral standpoint, I do think some of the slaughter techniques are better than what a hog would get in the wild or a boar. For the PETA representative, I’m just curious, would you see better farming practices with pastured pigs and better humane practices, would this at least be a step in the right direction over the CAFO system?

Nadia Taha: It’s a good question. PETA does work behind the scenes with companies to get them to eliminate some of the worst cruelty on CAFOs. In fact, I’m kind of surprised to hear Ashley defending the use of gestation crates. One of these welfare measures that we’re seeing is Smithfield’s commitment to eliminate by 2017, which, to me, is tantamount to an admission that they’re unacceptable. But yeah, so we do work, certainly, behind the scenes to help the animals that are now being crammed in filthy stalls and being shipped in weather extremes to eventually be killed.

Banning gestation crates, reducing crowding, other welfare measures— they’re all a start, but ultimately, we need to stop this cruel and destructive industry all together. It is completely unnecessary. Eating meat is completely unnecessary. Eating animals is unnecessary, and there are millions of people that are taking the steps to no longer do that. We’re seeing companies as big as Hellmann’s and Ben & Jerry’s changing their classic recipes in response to demand from humane-minded people who no longer wish to participate in these industries.

It’s interesting that you bring up the point of transport. I’m glad you did bring it up. I think this is something that gets very much neglected in this discussion. There are no laws regulating how many pigs can be packed into a truck or forbidding their transport through extreme cold or extreme heat. In winter, we have seen pigs die frozen to the inside of a truck. In summer, they die of heat exhaustion. Sometimes they fall and suffocate when additional animals are forced to pile on top of them in these trucks. And they’re all in panic. They scream. They’re desperately trying to get away. Sometimes, they even die of heart attacks right there on the truck. And in fact, the lucky ones are the ones that fall off.

RLH: We’re going to get to more on the transport issue in a second, and I think that’s something that we want to unpack in a little more detail. But going back to the gestation crates, Ashley DeDecker, Nadia says Smithfield has agreed to phase out these gestation crates by next year. So?

Ashley DeDecker: Yes, actually, Smithfield is very proud that we made a commitment in 2007 to transition our company-owned farms to group pens for pregnant sows, and we’re on track to complete that goal 100% by 2017, as well as our contract growers to make that commitment in 2022. And actually, Humane Society of the US has recognized that effort. But I do want to really make that clear that that decision was not made based on animal welfare. As I stated, the difference between the gestation stall and a group pen, it is not improving animal welfare. We did it because our consumers requested us to do it.

Sam (email): I just want to put out there that the views of PETA are extreme views that most Americans don't subscribe to. This is obvious because of the amount of pork and poultry eaten daily by Americans. I think it's ridiculous for PETA to say that there is something wrong with me wanting to eat meat and the millions of others who do the same.

RLH: To be fair, you are in a part of the country that tends to be more receptive and is also not as dependent on this industry as the state of North Carolina is. So when you hear Sam write something like that, and he is representative of millions of people, what do you say to Sam?

Nadia Taha: Yeah, he definitely is, and there’s no question that there’s a certain degree of dietary privilege that we have here in southern California. But certainly, a move to a plant-based diet is happening increasingly across the country, regardless of how Sam individually feels. There are already tens of millions of vegetarians and vegans in the United States alone. More and more people are learning that eating meat and dairy products is completely unnecessary, that those industries are responsible for a decline in human health, for massive environmental destruction, and nearly incomprehensible suffering and death. And those people are embracing eating plants. You only have to walk through the frozen foods section of a local grocery store, including the grocery stores in North Carolina, to find a wide variety of vegan meats, which pass a blind taste test, you can’t tell them from the original, dairy-free ice cream.

RLH: Janet Archer, you wanted to address the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle issue.

Janet Archer: Just briefly. And really, what I would like to do is invite Nadia to my home for dinner. What I will promise you is a really delicious vegan meal. I absolutely respect everyone’s ability to make those decisions, whether they make dietary decisions based on their moral compass or their physiological issues or nutritional needs or religious reasons. I have lived in a lot of places on this planet, and everyone has different cultural diets, and I respect all of them, but I do reserve that right to make the decision for myself.

Nancy (email): PETA seems too intractable about the issue of slaughter and pig farms. I wonder what constructive solutions they offer so farmers maintain their livelihood and those who want to eat meat can obtain the product that they want.

Nadia Taha: First of all, Janet, thanks for the invitation, I’ll hit you up the next time I’m rolling through town, but I would argue that both the caller’s question and Janet’s point get to the same issue that we hear sometimes: “Eating meat is a personal choice.” Well, eating meat is a personal choice for the person doing the eating. It’s not a personal choice for the one being eaten. Piglets have their tails cut off and their teeth clipped and their testicles ripped out of their bodies without pain killers. That’s not their personal choice, but these are standard industry practices. Runts are killed instead of being given veterinary treatment because it’s just not worth the money. That’s not their choice either. Filth that causes disease, poor ventilation, extreme crowding, living their entire life on concrete, never seeing the light of day, that’s not a personal choice, and I’d argue to the previous comment from the previous listener, that’s what’s extreme. Eating plants instead of eating animals seems pretty straight forward.

Brian (email): I am a local chef, a meat eater, and an animal lover. I personally agree with the previous comment that it is unrealistic to expect the public to completely stop consuming meat, however prudent it may be. I have always felt that their energy would be be better spent focusing to improve conditions on farms and increasing sustainability practices.

Alina (caller): So I used to be a meat eater, and I used to like all the meat, and then, when I moved to North Carolina, I started seeing these trucks full of piglets, just jammed in there, some of them trying to get their little noses out the sides, and it really struck my heart chords to see this, and then I started learning about the slaughter and everything else. You know, I grew up seeing hog farms as I drove from Pittsburg to Florida. Little lean-tos out in the farm, pigs roaming around, you know, it seemed very pastoral. I lived in a very rural area where they grew pigs in tents in Cuba, and people slaughtered the pigs back there. I remember seeing all of that, but the issue we have now, and with this whole personal freedom thing, it’s the same as with climate change. The climate is changing. Part of the climate change is due to animal husbandry. We have 7+ billion people on Earth. Americans are consuming five times more meat per day or per month, per year than whatever unit you want to have, than they used to in early 1900s. It’s just not a sustainable way of life anymore. We used to have wide open spaces. We don’t. All the trees are being felled for more development. It’s ignorance when people just think, they go to the supermarket, they get a little piece of pork chop or beef wrapped in cellofane, they don’t connect with everything that’s about it. And we have scientific illiteracy in this country where people don’t understand the science behind climate change, environmental degradation. These things are all linked with the number of people, excess consumerism. I gave up meat eating 10 years ago because I tried calling a farm in Texas that raised free range beef, and then I started asking them about how they slaughtered them, and I couldn’t even get the question out without crying because I just felt it was so cruel. We are willing to descend to the depths of hell to get a piece of meat on our plate. I think people don’t see that, they just don’t connect with that because it’s all on little Styrofoam trays with cellophane. I think if everybody had to go out and butcher their own pig and everything and bring all the bloody stuff home. I made my daughters try to do that, “You want roast for Christmas? Okay, you’re going to have to handle the bloody piece of meat and everything else.” And they were like, “Ew.” There’s so much disconnection between people and the bigger issues. It’s not just personal freedom to eat a piece of pig or cow or whatever it is whenever you want it.

RLH: So Alina is raising the issue here of the disconnection between what people are consuming and how it’s produced. Ashley DeDecker, can you speak to that?  

Ashley DeDecker: Alina, thank you for your comments. I agree, there’s a huge disconnect from the consumer who is shopping in the supermarket from the education of where our food comes from anymore. And honestly, part of that is agriculture’s fault. In the past fifteen to twenty years, we haven’t been transparent enough, but I think we’re making a huge effort now to really show what we’re doing and to be proud, really proud of the way we raise our animals and what we do for our animals. Which is why I can say anymore, “Go to SmithfieldFoods.com and look at all the videos that will show you everything – the processing plant to on the farms and everything that we can show you what’s going on.” If you want to follow Smithfield Foods on Twitter, on Facebook to get a better understanding. It’s our responsibility to be more transparent to the consumers, to educate them, because unfortunately 1% of the population is involved in agriculture and 99% are very removed from what’s going on in this industry.

Cindy (caller): Mankind has been eating meat since the Neanderthals. There’s nothing wrong with eating meat.

Mark (caller): I concur with Nadia's viewpoints. With the cruelty associated with these types of farms, growing unnecessary volumes of meat, and also the human cost in terms of pollution and also negative effects to physical health. Much of global warming is attributed to methane from animal production.

RLH: Janet Archer, you also work as a consultant. You train other hog growers in certain methods of production. And one of the issues that we have raised and haven’t really addressed throughout the show is the transport of these animals from one place to another. When are they transported, and what are some of the issues associated with that?

Janet Archer: They’re transported at several times. Most of our production is divided into what we call Three Site Production. So, one farm will have the mom pigs and the dad pigs and make the babies. The babies will then go to a nursery, and that is a specifically designed farm that’s going to be a little different. It’s going to be warmer. It’s going to have different feed. They need a higher level of protein. They’re growing fast. From there, when they’re maybe nine weeks or so, they’ll go to a finishing floor because that’s when their physiological needs change. They want to be cooler. Someone was talking about not seeing light. Most of our farms have curtain sides, so they look out and they’re very often naturally ventilated. My farm has curtain sides; the sows look out. So at each one of those stages, those animals have to be transported. Sometimes it’s a walk, sometimes they walk from one barn to another. Sometimes it’s on a truck. I think twenty years ago, that was a question, whether that transport was humane. Today—

RLH: So what Nadia was describing, about a pig being frozen to death or pigs dying of suffocation or being trampled—

Janet Archer: Well, I will tell you that today, that doesn’t— I’m not saying no pig ever dies, but boy, it’s rare. It’s really rare. We have very specific certification programs required for people that are going to transport animals. Slaughter facilities require that every truck that comes to that facility has a driver that is what we call Transport Quality Assurance certified, and that addresses issues like crowding, how many animals can be on the truck, how you move them. When you move animals is the time when animals can get hurt and when people get hurt, so how to correctly move, use the right tool for the right job. One of the things that Nadia said that I made note of was that there were no laws governing this. There are laws governing this. Every packing plant has a state inspector, and they look at those trucks to see how they’re loaded, are they overcrowded, was there an animal hurt? And there are very dire consequences. If a truck driver is seen committing any act of willful abuse, they’re not only dismissed from the facility; they’re banned from coming back and they can’t drive their truck away. The truck stays on the plant. They go away. So, people take that very seriously.

RLH: When you start hearing the allegations from some of these animal advocacy organizations like PETA that have done investigations, we hear the same things. We hear that the abuses are routine and they’re the same kinds of abuses that are found, and you say that farmers see videos of this and they get sick to their stomach.

Janet Archer: They are not routine. They are not to any stretch of the imagination routine. No one is more horrified than farmers. I will never say that it doesn’t ever happen because people are people and you’re going to have a bad one every now and then. I’ll also say, I’m 60 years old, so I’ve been doing this for forty years. And I’ve seen a lot of changes. I was one of those people that was raising pigs out in huts, and let me assure you, the pigs and I were all happy when we got to go inside in the middle of a Michigan winter, but one of the things that really has changed over that forty years is how we’re focusing on the animals and animal welfare. Animal welfare, as Ashley so correctly pointed out, is primary, especially in all of the training that I do, and I don’t know that it was on my grandparent’s radar the way it is now.

RLH: And why does it matter to you now? Why is this a thing? Why is this even an issue if the animal is being raised for food ultimately?

Janet Archer: Because it’s the ethically right thing to do. Once we brought animals out of the woods and we then became responsible for them, we are ethically obligated to make sure that the life that they have is a good one and they’re cared for. As Ashley pointed out, the kind of farms that we have—and I work with outdoors operations and indoor operations—have much less impact on the wellbeing of the animal and how well I see them thriving than the people that are caring for them. It’s about the herdsman. My degree—again, I’m old—my degree, back in the day, was animal husbandry. That degree today is called animal science, but I appreciate that it was animal husbandry because that’s about the care and feeding and understanding of the animal’s needs and meeting those needs. It’s not just about the science.

RLH: I want to ask about antibiotics because this is something that always comes up when we talking about raising animals for food. How are antibiotics used on these CAFOs? Is this something that’s part of the feed in order to grow them faster?

Ashley DeDecker: Antibiotics are used for three reasons. We use antibiotics to treat animals that are sick. We use antibiotics to control the spread of disease, and we also use them to prevent disease that could be in the environment of healthy pigs. So those are the three ways that we do use antibiotics, but I think the most important thing to say to people who are concerned—I know the topic of antibiotic resistance always comes up—and the most important thing everyone wants to know is that they’re receiving a safe product. And the way we make sure that is safe is because there’s what we call a withdrawal time, meaning that antibiotics are not allowed to be given to any pigs before they go to market at a specific time, so it’s out of their system. To top that, it is actually inspected, antibiotic residues are inspected in the carcass and in the meat, so that’s kind of a secondary safety step to make sure that the product that’s consumed or purchased at the grocery store is a safe, quality product.

RLH: There’s reports about a drug called ractopamine, a drug that speeds weight gain and promotes muscle growth over fat. This is something that’s been banned in the European Union, and Russia will only import ractopamine-free meat. Is that something that we use here?

Ashley DeDecker: Well, actually ractopamine has been used in the US before. Smithfield no longer uses ractopamine in the feed. I still believe it is considered to be a safe product that is used in the US. Like I said, Smithfield doesn't use it, but I’m not quite sure about the current status. Jan, are you aware?

Janet Archer: I can talk a little bit about that. First, just a correction, Russia is importing no product of any kind, no matter what it’s ever been given. The import bans from the EU and from other places have more to do with trade. It’s never been declared a safety issue. It’s always been declared a trade issue. It’s an important tool for some producers to have in their toolbox because it does increase sustainability. You will have fewer inputs into that animal to create that end product. But having said that, as Ashley pointed out, North Carolina is a ractopamine-free state, and fewer and fewer places are using it, but that doesn’t mean it’ll go away completely.

RLH: Where is the hog farming industry headed in North Carolina? Every industry evolves, as this one is. What is changing, and Ashley DeDecker, what are we likely to see over the next decade?

Ashley DeDecker: I mean, I’m excited to see the future of the swine industry. That’s part of my job. I work in research and get to find new technology. Everywhere you look, people are using iPads or cell phones. The technology we’re going implement is going to be the key for the next five to ten years on how to produce and raise a better pig and, honestly, for animal husbandry and for our employees to do a better job as well. 

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.