Destruction & deadstock disposal: are we prepared?

The Canadian pork industry hopes to avert the prospect of a large volume of dead pigs, but officials are preparing in the event of a major disease outbreak.

by Jackie Clark

Disposing of dead livestock is an unpleasant task at best. However, being able to do so safely and efficiently is a reality for swine producers across Canada. The task requires technical knowledge and access to resources such as deadstock bins or composting materials.

In individual farm-emergency situations such as a natural disaster or barn fire, the government and pork producer groups can step in to help.

But what if we face the worst-case scenario?

In the event of a foreign animal disease outbreak such as African swine fever (ASF), being prepared and equipped to handle the destruction and disposal of deadstock would be essential. Though industry officials hope to never have to deal with the situation, national and provincial conversations and plans are ongoing to address this concern.

This undertaking would require meticulous coordination throughout the industry, and mental resiliency from pork producers across Canada. In this feature, Better Pork connects with government and industry officials across the pork industry to provide reminders of deadstock best practices, and an update on emergency contingency plans.

Laws are provincial

“In Canada, each province or territory has the authority to develop legislation regarding deadstock of farmed animals,” Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) say in a joint statement to Better Pork.

“The methods of deadstock disposal do vary from province to province or territory, but they generally converge on the most likely methods, that is: composting, burial on-farm, landfill and rendering.”

Methods vary depending on factors such as environmental conditions and available resources.

    Polly Mckinlay/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

In Ontario, regulations exist to govern deadstock disposal both on- and off-farm, Christa Roettele, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), tells Better Pork.

On-farm disposal is covered by the Disposal of Dead Farm Animals regulations under the Nutrient Management Act, 2002, and monitored for compliance by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

“The regulation establishes standards and setbacks for on-farm dead-stock management and disposal to reduce the risk to the environment,” Roettele explains. “Deadstock disposal options on-farm include burial, incineration, composting, disposal vessels, collection by a licensed collector, anaerobic digestion and delivery to a licensed disposal facility. It is up to producers to find the most environmentally sound method of disposing of their deadstock.”

Guidelines for on-farm disposal in Ontario also outline operating requirements, volume limits, timelines, transportation, record-keeping requirements and minimum separation distances “from livestock housing facilities, field drainage tiles, residential and commercial lands, surface water, bedrock and aquifers and wells including municipal wells and floodplains,” she adds.

In Ontario, off-farm disposal is controlled by the Disposal of Deadstock regulations under the Food Safety and Quality Act, 2001, enforced by OMAFRA.

Licensed operators collect, use, recycle and dispose of deadstock following “standards and requirements for transportation, processing, storage and disposal of deadstock off-farm,” Roettele says. “In addition to protecting public health, these standards help minimize impacts to animal health and the environment.”

General best practices

“The majority of producers still prefer to use deadstock removal right from site, however with biosecurity and disease control measures, more producers are looking at options for on-farm,” Frank Wood, manager of industry and member services at Ontario Pork, tells Better Pork. “The trend appears to be going toward on-farm composting.”

In Ontario, “rendering, compost or landfill are the three most common methods producers use,” says Roettele.

To keep deadstock bins from impacting the biosecurity of barns, producers should “assume all disposal containers and compost piles contain swine pathogens,” Wood writes in the June 2020 edition of OMAFRA’s Pork News & Views. Farmers can work with veterinarians to plan disposal areas in places where they won’t impact the barn.

Other general reminders include ensuring deadstock bins are located in well-drained areas with lids that close tightly and following biosecurity protocols for clothing and vehicles used to transport dead animals, he writes. “The transportation of dead animals should be the last task of the day.”

Producers can “apply dry lime liberally and often to the ground,” immediately around the bins, and should regularly disinfect bins and vehicles, he adds.

Emergency situations

Exceptions exist in deadstock management legislation in the case of extenuating circumstances.

“Deadstock legislation is designed for mortality management, and additional safeguards are included in the provincial or territorial regulations which require further approval for situations that exceed normal mortality situations,” says a joint statement from AAFC and CFIA.

OMAFRA “regularly reviews and updates government emergency and response plans to ensure we are prepared for emergency situations,” Roettele says.

“Provisions for emergency conditions such as a barn fire exist where an operator cannot comply with the Nutrient Management Act requirements with respect to storage, disposal or transportation of the dead farm animals,” she explains.

“The regulation allows the operator to apply for approval to arrange for storage, disposal or transportation that do not otherwise meet the requirements of the regulation. In this situation, each case is decided individually.”

In those cases, industry organizations like Ontario Pork help to support farmers.

“Generally, in the case of a barn fire, we’ll reach out directly to the producer, or the producer will reach out to me,” Wood explains. “One of our people will work with the OMAFRA team to come up with a solution for their farms.”

When safe and possible, marketing animals is the first choice, explains Gary Stordy, director of government and corporate affairs at the Canadian Pork Council (CPC). The order of priority would be “trying to market, render and then properly dispose of” deadstock.

“Unfortunately, there’s only limited capacity for rendering,” Stordy adds. “It’s only keeping pace with the flow of animals that are currently sent for rendering. There’s not much flexibility or opportunity to increase the rendering capacity.”

The threat of ASF

“The Government of Canada continues to engage extensively with the provinces, territories and industry to prevent and prepare for ASF, including the development of disposal plans,” AAFC and CFIA say in a joint statement to Better Pork.

“This year’s Ministers of Agriculture annual conference allowed FPT (federal, provincial and territorial) partners to reaffirm their support for the government-industry Pan-Canadian ASF Action Plan. The plan will enable a timely and coordinated response to the risk of an outbreak in Canada, should one occur.”

An outbreak of ASF in Canada would require collaboration across the country to safely dispose of pig carcasses.

“Nationally coordinated discussions are taking place, but it really is going to be a provincial government, provincial industry organization and producer conversation that has to happen,” Stordy says. “There’s no federal or national authority to dictate how it’s going to be done.… It’s a regional or provincial jurisdiction where it has to be figured out.”

Ontario Pork is “working extremely closely with government as well as a lot of our industry partners … to come up with the right solutions,” Wood says. The organization is “trying to understand regulations and best practices, and how we apply these to each of the farms that we’re working with.”

In a worst-case situation involving a foreign animal disease such as an ASF outbreak, the industry may need to coordinate increased deadstock numbers, both from farms experiencing disease outbreaks and from those that are virus-free but forced to euthanize animals as a result of a catastrophic market disruption,” Wood explains.

“We’re hoping we never need to do this,” he adds.

Practical considerations

Though the industry has experience dealing with disease, ASF would be a different challenge altogether.

“Any other example has not been to the scale of what we’re trying to prepare for in case we ever get ASF,” Stordy says. With other disease outbreaks, “regardless of the production type or the size of the farm, normal operations in the rest of the sector have continued.”

In the case of ASF, the entire industry would be impacted due to being shut out of global markets. One difference would be “frankly, just the volume of the animals,” he adds. “If this is a larger depopulation, we definitely need to take into consideration the volume of animals in the area and the volume of carcasses that will be added to the environment.”

Producers have learned lessons about biosecurity and deadstock from outbreaks of porcine epidemic diarrhea, Stordy explains. Those cases involved simultaneously “trying to limit the spread of PED but still manage an outbreak on-farm.”

Experts may be able to translate learning “how was that done in an efficient manner, but also in a manner that doesn’t further spread of a virus. You’re looking at controlling movements, vehicle and transportation logistics … those lessons are coming into play now,” he adds.

Managing deadstock is more complicated with diseased animals, Stordy says. Producers have to pay even closer attention to “the location from water systems, barns and other facilities. You have minimum distances, limitations on how many animals you can bury, for example. And then understanding when you can compost as well as being able to source enough materials to do things properly.”

Industry preparedness

As part of the coordinated industry approach, officials have assembled into several national task forces and working groups. An expert panel includes destruction and disposal in a list of six research priorities related to ASF, Dr. Andrew Van Kessel explains in a Jan. 6 ASF preparedness webinar hosted by Swine Innovation Porc (SIP).

Van Kessel is the science advisory body chair of SIP and chair of the panel, as well as the associate director of research at Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization and a professor in the department of animal and poultry science at the University of Saskatchewan.

Mass euthanasia and deadstock disposal is “an area that could use some additional research focus, including the need to be able to dispose of carcasses in a manner that does not cause distribution of the virus and hopefully inactivates the virus,” he says.

Mark Fynn, manager of quality assurance and animal care programs at Manitoba Pork, addresses “work we’re doing currently in Canada to prepare for large-scale emergency depopulation of swine, in the event of a border-closing event like a foreign animal disease caused by something like ASF,” in the same webinar.

In the structure of ASF national-level committees and working groups, the group focusing on destruction and disposal involves membership from CFIA, AAFC, provincial governments, CPC, the Canadian Meat Council and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

Sub-working groups include one focused on disposal and two focused on destruction, Fynn says.

The destruction technical expert subgroup’s objective is “to discuss all the options for depopulations and euthanasia out there – both methods that currently exist and are used every day on farms for sick and injured pigs, but also looking at some of the higher-capacity methods that are emerging,” he explains. They assessed welfare aspects and resources required for those methods.

Higher-capacity methods include the use of lethal gases.

The destruction expert panel subgroup reviewed the methods based on scientific evidence, global industry standards and best practices, Fynn adds.

“Between those two groups we’ve come up with some agreement on acceptable depopulation methods, but I should say the work is ongoing.”

The ongoing efforts to establish protocols and source materials is essential, however another aspect that must be addressed is the human element of handling dead livestock, particularly in an emergency situation.

“The impact on the mental health of the producer … is something that you have to factor in,” Stordy says. Euthanizing pigs or experiencing massive mortalities from disease goes against a farmer’s life’s work of raising healthy animals to feed people.

In the case of an ASF outbreak, for “those involved in the actual euthanasia, there’s potentially a level of fatigue that could set in,” he adds.

Peer support and resiliency will be a key element of ASF preparedness when it comes to the potential case of destruction and disposal of pigs. BP

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