KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Feeding the ground intestines of dead piglets to sows probably doesn't come to consumers' minds when the word "feedback" is mentioned. But recently released undercover video could change that perception, and a panel of animal welfare experts convened to explain what it all means.

The Humane Society of the United States released a video taken by an undercover worker that allegedly depicts, among other things, sows and piglets being mistreated at the Iron Maiden Hog Farm, Owensboro, Ky. Voice-over narration in the video states that piglets were being gutted and their intestines ground up and fed to sows to build immunity against the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) that is devastating piglet populations at US hog farms. Millions of pigs have died within the last 10 months. But HSUS is taking issue with the practice called feedback, which helps sows build up immunity and pass it on to the piglets. Another practice is spraying a small amount of diluted feces from an infected piglet onto the snouts of sows.

An Animal Care Review Panel convened by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) weighed in on the ethical and legal considerations of some of the practices depicted in the HSUS video.

“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. “Is it better to save pigs’ lives and improve their welfare or to say this is too ‘icky’ and just let the pigs die? That’s what it comes down to because there is absolutely no other alternative.”

The panel also refuted claims that the scale of large pork operations is a contributing factor to the emergence and spread of PEDv, which was unknown in the US before April 2013.

“Claims that the infection rate is greater on so-called ‘factory farms’ than on other farms and that smaller farms don’t use practices like “feedback” are just wrong,” said panelist Dr. Lisa Tokach, a practicing swine veterinarian in Kansas. “I work with all sizes of farms and they are all dealing with the same issues. It’s just more dramatic when you have 5,000 sows instead of five sows.”

HSUS contends the practice is illegal in Kentucky. On this point, the panelists said this likely could be true. Kentucky has a decades-old regulation that prohibits feeding garbage, including animal tissue, to feed animals. The panel is investigating this issue. Meanwhile, Dr. Candace Croney, Purdue Univ. said “The aesthetics of what is happening here should not be the sole consideration although it is hard to get past that.”

“The real ethical question is whether the industry should refrain from using the crude procedures currently available to stimulate immunity to the disease because of the high ‘ick’ factor that is involved,” she said. "Where is more harm done under these specific circumstances?”

Dr. Croney argued that an ethical problem could arise if a farmer did not use the tools available to save animals because of how the procedure might be perceived.

“It would be a different situation if the discussion was about doing this routinely or killing healthy piglets to do this or putting animal or public health at risk,” she said. “That’s simply not the case here. It’s a tricky situation created by lack of scientifically sound alternatives and a case of emergency. The aesthetics and potential negative public perception simply compound the issue.”