Following an undercover investigation this year at an Owensboro hog farm, The Humane Society of the United States alleged Thursday that state and federal animal-handling regulations might have been violated.
The Humane Society's vice president of farm-animal protection, Paul Shapiro, said video and photographs taken at Iron Maiden Hog Farm showed workers feeding sows the ground-up intestines of piglets that died of a highly contagious diarrheal disease.
"Iron Maiden was taking the pig intestines, grinding them up into a kind of smoothie, and feeding it back to their mothers, turning them into cannibals," Shapiro said.
He said state and federal regulations prohibited feeding garbage, except for household waste, to swine.
Attempts to reach Iron Maiden Hog Farm were unsuccessful Thursday. According to the Kentucky secretary of state's office, Jerry W. O'Bryan is listed as an owner. Through an attorney, he declined to comment.
But his veterinarian, Dr. Dale Hendrickson of Farmland, Ind., defended O'Bryan's operation.
"There is nothing in there that I would tell you, if we went through most hog farms in America, that is abnormal," he said. "They found nobody abusing animals of any kind, and that's the most important part. No employees abused or mistreated animals."
The Humane Society of the United States presented its findings to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. State veterinarian Dr. Robert Stout said his office would investigate the claims.
"We've reviewed the video and we're reviewing the law right now," Stout said.
Of feeding sows the flesh of dead piglets, Stout said, "I would say, while it seems like a crude practice, it is long-accepted immunization practice. It has a history of being effective, especially in the absence of a vaccine."
The piglets apparently were killed by the porcine epidemic diarrheal virus, or PEDV, which has swept the country in recent months and reached Kentucky in the past two months. There is no vaccine or treatment for PEDV, and pigs younger than 12 days old almost always die of dehydration.
A panel of animal care specialists analyzed the video for the industry-funded Center for Food Integrity.
"There's no question that people may be put off by this treatment, but PEDV is wreaking havoc out there on the farms, and 'feedback' is the only control method we have found to be effective," said Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians. "This is a virus that was unknown in the U.S. prior to April, and the characteristics of the virus don't lend themselves to research and development. People need to ask themselves, what are you more uncomfortable with: truckloads of dead pigs or exposing animals to a fecal slurry?"
While the experts took issue with most of the Humane Society's findings, they also said the claim that the "feedback" process was illegal in Kentucky was probably true.
"There is a regulation in Kentucky that goes back decades on feeding garbage, and the definition of garbage includes animal tissue," Burkgren said. "So, it may technically be illegal. We're checking with Kentucky's state veterinarian for more information and current interpretation of the regulation."
The Kentucky Livestock Coalition, an industry advocacy group, also released a statement supporting the farm.
The coalition's president, Caleb Ragland, a LaRue County grain and hog farmer, said: "Our animals are our livelihood, and the health and well-being of livestock is priority number one for farmers. We won't stand for defaming a producer trying to save his herd during a crisis."
According to the coalition, the practice is recommended by veterinarians to inoculate pregnant sows and create resistance in their unborn piglets. "In some instances, intestines or stool from affected swine are used to save unaffected swine," according to the coalition's statement.
Richard Coffey, director of the University of Kentucky Research and Education Center and a state swine extension professor, said the PEDV inoculation treatment used by this farm was necessary.
"This is really just done in certain cases that we don't have any vaccines for," Coffey said. With PEDV, the process called "'feedback' is a way to save the pigs."
The Humane Society also criticized other practices of the Daviess County hog farm, including confining sows to gestation stalls that limit movement, and immobilizing them with hobbles. The Kentucky Livestock Care Standards Commission has deemed the practices acceptable.
Shapiro and Dr. Michael Blackwell, a veterinarian with the Humane Society, said conditions such as those at Iron Maiden indicate that the policy should be revisited.
"I want to emphasis that what we are talking about is your food supply. We want to be clear about that," Blackwell said. "This recent outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea is evidence we need to question an industry that claims to have everything under control."
The Humane Society's Shapiro said that even if a veterinarian recommended this practice, "it's illegal in Kentucky. A veterinarian can't trump state law. ... Experts say the best way to prevent PED is more hygiene, less stress. This facility is filthy, these pigs are enduring extreme suffering; many are lame, have gross injuries that are going untreated. It's cruel and inhumane."
The video from the Humane Society, Coffey said, showed conditions typical of many swine operations.
"I didn't see anything in there that indicated those animals were being abused," Coffey said.
He said he had visited Iron Maiden farm, which he said was a modern, clean, well-run operation.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl.