Ben Goldacre wrote a short blogpost today to bemoan the habit of many media outlets of not linking to the primary sources for their reports and headlines. He was referring to stories that have appeared today about Asian gangs abusing white girls (e.g. this form the BBC). In typically trenchant terms he dismisses such shoddy reporting, “If you don’t link to primary sources, you are dead to me.”
I sympathise. I came across what appears to be a shocking story on the Sky News web-site. The headline states bluntly: “South Korea Buries One Millions Pigs Alive”. But I can’t figure out if it’s true.
The report, dated 7th Jan, is accompanied by a couple of gruesome photographs and makes for unpleasant reading. South Korea has been suffering from an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) since 29th November 2010. FMDV, the virus that causes the disease, is extremely contagious and infects cloven-hooved animals such as pigs, cattle, sheep and goats, the mainstay of animal farming.
The very rapid spread of the virus demands swift action on the part of the national governments. Korea can no longer trade in livestock or meat products with the rest of the world. Its agricultural economy is under severe threat: the cost of this outbreak will run into hundreds of millions of dollars.
The government has two choices – to vaccinate or to cull* and the Koreans have opted (as did the UK in 2001 and 2007) to control the outbreak by mass slaughter. But what is extraordinary here is the apparent decision to kill infected animals (and many that simply might be infected) by burying them alive in mass graves. This is a brutal practice that is in contravention of the guidelines on animal slaughter from the OIE, the World Animal Health Organisation.
If true, the reports of live burial are abominable. But it is hard to track down the truth.
Sky News says only that “South Korea has been heavily criticised for burying up to one million pigs alive as it grapples with a foot and mouth disease outbreak”. It is not clear where the figure of one million comes from. The Daily Telegraph quotes the Korean Agriculture ministry as saying that 1.1 million animals have been culled (that’s a staggering 8% of the pig and cattle population, by the way) but the paper makes no mention of live burial.
The Sky News report implies that it is the Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) that has been critical of the practice of burying live pigs in Korea and includes a link to a CIWF web-page. But that page states only that, “It is reported that 2,400 pigs have been buried alive in the Republic of Korea” and gives no indication of the source of the information.
After digging around I came across the web-site of another animal welfare organisation, KARA (Korean Animal Rights Advocates), which carried a report that seems a more likely source for the Sky News story. It’s the most detailed account that I have found and includes descriptions of some of the culls and reports of the psychological trauma that the process is inflicting on the human participants. It also links to a Korean site that has photographs that convincingly show pigs being herded, with the aid of a mechanical excavator, into an open pit.
These elements of the KARA report appear credible. But, although it also states that 90% of the 1 million animals killed have been buried alive, this very serious claim is not substantiated. Yet again, there is a missing link.
And there the trail has run out – for now.
Maybe the Sky News report is true. But what’s troubling is that I had to work so hard to try to figure out if there was any real substance to it** and that, even then, I can’t be sure. So I agree with Dr Goldacre — if you don’t link to primary sources in your reporting, it’s a dead loss.
*This is a difficult choice. FMDV vaccines are available but it can take 1-2 weeks to get animals into a protected state, arguably too slow to prevent spread of the disease.
**I also tried checking up at the OIE web-site, which is tracking the course of the outbreak (FMD is a notifiable disease, meaning that all nations must immediately report the occurrence of an outbreak and keep the OIE informed of its progress and control). Helpfully, OIE provide weekly tallies of the numbers of animals that have been killed since the Korean outbreak started on Nov 29th. But some of the numers in their tables were suspiciously round and, unless I have made an error in my addition, their tally of dead animals up to 7th Jan 2011 was only about 240,000, well short of the 1.1 million figure attributed to the Korean Agriculture Ministry.