The logistics and ethics of swine research

Scientists work closely with pork producers, truck drivers and processing plant staff to identify research priorities and fill knowledge gaps.

by Jackie Clark

Swine producers across Canada do the hard, daily work of raising pigs. Farmers care for sows throughout gestation and farrowing, monitor the health of piglets, and feed hogs until they are ready to ship to market.

Farm families teach the next generation how to care for pigs, and producers also learn through academic and industry institutions. But where did that knowledge come from?

Many of the animal husbandry practices we apply in the swine industry – from routine vaccinations to feed mixing strategies to loading pigs onto trucks – are developed through years of dedicated research.

Improvements in “biological systems usually are small pieces of information and new findings that are added together to get results,” Stewart Cressman, the chair of Swine Innovation Porc, tells Better Pork. Swine Innovation Porc is a national organization that has aided research in the Canadian swine sector since 2010.

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Better Pork connects with scientists, animal ethics specialists and research coordinators to learn about sector priorities, experiment logistics and the care of pigs used in research to advance the swine industry’s prospects.

Swine research in Canada

Before 2010, provinces mostly conducted swine research independently, Cressman says.

However, leading up to that year, the provinces started to collaborate on a transportation study, and swine experts had formed the Canadian Swine Health Board to address Circovirus. This disease had inflicted significant losses on the industry since the mid-2000s.

In 2010, “the federal government saw it important that the commodities determine priorities for research significant to the industry. The real impetus came from the provinces seeing the benefit of working collaboratively, and the federal government came to the table,” Cressman says.

So, Swine Innovation Porc organized the federal cluster program. The Canadian Pork Council and provincial pork organizations are members of Swine Innovation Porc.

The organization identifies research priorities for five-year clusters and gets input from industry stakeholders, Cressman says.

Swine Innovation Porc “works with the research community requesting letters of intent. (Then, the organization) narrows (those submissions) down to (requests for) full proposals, and then narrows those proposals down to high, medium and low priorities,” he says. Swine Innovation Porc submits its research plan to the federal government, and officials assess proposals and allocate funding.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and universities across the country also conduct and aid research.

“Universities and AAFC manage a variety of research farms. (These facilities) are designed quite differently from a commercial herd, because they permit (treatment) replication,” Dr. Andrew Van Kessel tells Better Pork. He’s a professor in the department of animal and poultry science at the University of Saskatchewan.

Important design components include smaller pen sizes, surgery rooms and metabolism crates which allow for individual nutrition assessments, Van Kessel says. Certain experiments, such as challenge studies in which pigs are exposed to pathogens, require biocontainment facilities. This setup ensures that pigs outside the experiment aren’t exposed to the bacteria or virus in the study.

Scientific merit and welfare

veterinarian holding a pig
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Before researchers can begin a study, they must prove its scientific merit and their consideration of animal welfare in their experimental design.

As Canadian research expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, more public concern emerged about animals in research. The Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) formed in 1968 as part of the solution.

“We’re a certification agency. We’ve developed animal ethics and care standards, and then we certify institutions,” Pierre Verreault tells Better Pork. He’s the CCAC’s executive director.

CCAC officials don’t differentiate the certification process by the type of research. Institutions need the same certification to conduct research on pigs for human health studies as for research on animal husbandry, he explains.

“Every institution that is certified has a local animal care committee,” Verreault adds. These committees review information that researchers submit before the committee approves animal use.

First, researchers need to demonstrate a scientific merit or, if the project is about teaching, they must demonstrate a methodological merit, Verreault says. The merit must justify the use of animals.

Typically, “scientific merit is achieved through the granting process,” Van Kessel says. Because studies are funded through peer-review competition, experiments that would not add knowledge to the pork industry are unlikely to be funded.

After merit is established, researchers “need to submit an animal use protocol (AUP) in which they describe how many animals they will use and what kind of treatment they will apply to these animals,” Dr. Renée Bergeron tells Better Pork. She’s an associate professor in the animal biosciences department at the University of Guelph.

Researchers “need to describe very precisely all the steps of the experiment,” she explains.

Institutional animal care committees evaluate the AUPs using three R principles: replacement, reduction and refinement.

First, the committee considers replacement. “Is there a way you could replace this animal? Do we need to use this kind of animal?” Verreault asks.

Then the committee considers reduction. The committee reviews “the experimental design and statistics (to ask): Is it the right number of animals? Could we use fewer?” he says.

It might be important at this stage to consider using more animals. If the proposed study does not involve enough animals to get enough statistical power, the experiment can’t achieve the desired knowledge or merit. As a result, researchers might have to repeat their work and use even more animals, Verreault says.

The refinement principle focuses on management protocol. The animal care committee will ask the researcher about the methodology to ensure that every effort is made to reduce pain and suffering, Verreault adds.

Having an AUP approved by the animal care committee “is a condition of funding … The university will not open your research account unless you have gone through the hoops, completed your AUP and had those protocols approved,” Bergeron says.

Non-compliance with standards of care for animals kept for research occurs sporadically, but the CCAC is “not a regulatory body, so we cannot fine people,” Verreault says. Anybody with concerns “can either complain at the institutional level” or directly to CCAC staff, who might launch an inquiry.

“It can lead to losing your certification,” or a CCAC official may visit the institution to provide immediate, short-term or longer-term recommendations, he adds.

Care of pigs

The CCAC outlines standards for the care and use of farm animals in research, teaching and testing, Dr. Gilly Griffin tells Better Pork. She’s the CCAC’s director of standards.

The standards specify requirements for facilities, management, transportation, husbandry and safety as well as procedural considerations. The organization also has 19 species-specific guidelines for pigs, including ventilation, flooring, social and enrichment standards.

“We expect the highest standards for animals kept in research institutions, because the public expects a higher standard when animals are being used for research rather than for food production,” Griffin says. When teaching, “we want students to have the opportunity to see the best practices.”

hog farm Iowa
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But there is a challenge. We want “to ensure that the research facilities at the universities and federal institutions (aren’t) drastically different from the farm environment,” Cressman says.

“Our research facilities are very clean and perhaps don’t reflect the commercial situation,” Van Kessel agrees.

Sometimes research must be more directly translatable to commercial operations or conducted at commercial facilities, which are not designed and managed with the CCAC’s standards in mind.

“It is recognized that deviation from these guidelines may be necessary when animals are involved in particular scientific protocols,” says the CCAC’s frequently asked questions document for the care and use of farm animals in research, teaching and testing.

“When research is to be conducted at a site where the conditions under which the animals are held do not meet the CCAC guidelines, the investigator will need to provide scientific justification based on the research goals,” the document says.

So, researchers can also collaborate with pork producers to conduct experiments at commercial operations to advance industry knowledge.

Working with farmers

Cressman, who operates a finishing barn in Ontario with his sons, has worked with scientists on two swine research projects on his farm. One study compared complex and simple nursery diets, and the other project considered the effects of transport trailer type and distance on meat quality, he says.

When conducting research at commercial operations, scientists must be mindful of working in partnership with farmers. This process involves “meeting with the owners and managers and sharing our objectives – what we’re trying to accomplish,” Van Kessel says. “We are getting the support of the producers and, of course, entering their facilities with biosecurity in mind.”

caregiver checking on piglet
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

Adhering to biosecurity standards and non-exposure times can slow data collection, especially if several sites are involved, but researchers respect the safety of the herds, he explains.

“It’s about trust,” Van Kessel adds. “Folks working in commercial barns are extremely busy and they don’t have time for an additional job. So, we need to be sure the way we’re interacting with producers has minimal or no impact on their normal operations.”

Types of research

The landscape of swine health and pork production research in Canada is vast.

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Some researchers are studying “ways to select pigs that are less susceptible to stress,” Bergeron says. “If we select for pigs that do not react to stressors as much, their overall welfare will be improved.”

She is also researching ways to genetically reduce boar taint to decrease the need for castration.

Other focuses include finding ways to reduce the use of antibiotics, using nutrition to promote health, breeding for disease resistance and improving the well-being of pigs during transportation, Cressman says.

Many researchers are investigating the pig gut microbiome and the implications for health and performance. The microbiome is challenging to study because it is complex, vast, dynamic and varies by genetics, environment and nutrition, Van Kessel explains.

So, scientists must approach the topic using various methods. Some researchers are coordinating a national project.

“We are collecting fecal material from sows and their piglets and, in the case of the piglets, at regular intervals from birth to slaughter. We’re doing that in a number of herds across the country,” Van Kessel says.

“At the same time, (we are) collecting metadata with respect to animal performance and health characteristics,” he adds.

He has also studied the microbiome using a very different method: gnotobiology.

These experiments start with a caesarian section on sows. Researchers remove the piglets immediately from the uterus, give them an iodine bath and put them into a sterile high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered bubble, Van Kessel explains.

The piglets are given sterile colostrum and feed to allow the researchers to try to study animals without the influence of foreign microbiology.

“They’re very difficult experiments,” Van Kessel says. “It’s extremely difficult to ensure that the piglets are germ-free. Bacteria are everywhere.”

Microbiome research is just one example of how studying one component of the swine industry can employ a drastically different methodology. The accumulation of insights from many studies leads to industry improvements, says Cressman.

Needs and next steps

Swine research continually advances.

“In July, Minister Ernie Hardeman announced a partnership with Ontario Pork to construct an advanced swine research facility with a total investment of $15 million. (Of this funding,) $3 million is from Ontario Pork and $12 million is from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) through the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario,” says Christa Roettele, an OMAFRA spokesperson.

    Martin Schwalbe photo

“The Ontario Swine Research Centre will support research in areas such as nutrition, genetics, animal health and welfare, technology demonstration and verification, and food safety.”

Swine Innovation Porc is in the middle of its third cluster program and is beginning to plan for the next one. Research “priorities should be updated on a continuing basis,” Cressman says.

Sometimes, issues arise partway through a five-year cycle, and the organization cannot respond quickly, he explains.

“We hope, similar to the beef industry, to have a national checkoff on imported meat. That would give us funds annually to address issues that come in,” he says.

The organization also hopes to strengthen international connections to ensure that Canadian researchers work with their global counterparts and remain up to date on research underway elsewhere, Cressman says.

“You don’t want to be blindsided by the results (of) somebody else’s research that makes the research you’ve just agreed to fund, or are partway through funding, of limited value,” he says.

Similarly, the CCAC strives to address timely concerns.

“We have a process for maintaining our standards. Periodically, we evaluate them in house,” Griffin explains. The “standards committee decides whether they need to be fully redeveloped or whether they need to go out for expert review.”

The organization continues to protect and improve the welfare of the animals used in research.

“Using animals in science is a privilege; it’s not something you’re entitled to,” Verreault says.

Dedicated staff maintain and care for research herds, but the industry stakeholders can’t expect facilities to be self-funding, Van Kessel says.

“Researchers pay access fees for access to animals and the (staff) sell some pigs. But the facilities are just not designed for high throughput commercial operations, and they could never be financially sustainable on their own without the support of universities and governments,” he explains. “Those facilities are expensive to operate and absolutely critical to continuing research and to supporting the Canadian swine industry in remaining competitive.” BP

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