It's Time to Talk About Depopulation in the U.S. Swine Industry

May 13, 2024

When reports of African swine fever outbreaks in China hit the news in 2018, the U.S. pork industry went right to work to boost preparedness and prevention efforts. Industry strides and advancements in these areas were shouted across the news headlines; meanwhile, work taking place on the critically important aspects of depopulation and mortality management were less talked about. 

If the worst-case scenario happens and animals need to be depopulated in an effort to contain and eradicate the disease, how would the pork industry respond? 

“No one is excited about the process or idea of depopulating, whether it’s one or multiple animals. I would say it’s quite the contrary,” says Jeremy Seiger, agriculture department manager at Envirotech Engineering. “However, it is an unfortunate likelihood that a catastrophic event of this nature will eventually occur.”

That’s why the U.S. pork industry can’t afford to not be prepared. 

The National Pork Board has teamed up with university researchers to explore new methods of depopulation and mortality management to increase the number of tools available to U.S. pork producers should the worst-case scenario happen. 

After a five-year process, the National Pork Board began working with state pork associations and state agriculture departments to practice implementation of depopulation and mortality management activities in a real-world environment to better increase stakeholder understanding. 

“We know that our producers need to be able to help themselves,” says Stephanie Wetter, director of animal welfare, sustainability at the National Pork Board. “They are the experts in their own production company. They need to have a plan, understand what equipment and resources they have available, know what land is available and what’s associated with their mortality management options, and understand their state and federal resources.”

The reality is emergencies don’t always happen in a vacuum, she points out. A foreign animal disease (FAD) in pigs could strike during a disease outbreak affecting another species, which could hinder response plans. 

“We know no two states have the same resources,” she says. “In addition, the restraints, restrictions and laws may not be the same either. That’s why we must expect the unexpected, and always have a plan B in place.”

It is critical to understand the difference between euthanasia and depopulation, Wetter says. 

“The American Veterinary Medical Association defines euthanasia as the ending of life of an individual animal in a way that minimizes or eliminates pain and distress,” she explains. “But comparatively, depopulation is the rapid and efficient destruction of a complete population of animals in response to urgent circumstances, with as much consideration for the welfare of animals as is practical.”

It’s not just about one animal as depopulation considers an entire farm full of animals (or area), Wetter points out. Urgent circumstances could include regulatory diseases, non-regulatory highly pathogenic diseases, emerging swine production diseases, zoonotic diseases, intoxications and adulterations, radiologic exposures, natural disasters and market disruptions — similar to what happened during the early stages of the pandemic. 

AVMA further categorizes approved methods of depopulation as preferred and permitted in constrained circumstances. Many of the preferred methods look similar to euthanasia. But if you’ve gone through your preferred methods list, and none of those are available for any reason, then the “permitted in constrained circumstances” list offers alternatives. 

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