Burying Pigs and Information

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.

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17 Responses to Burying Pigs and Information

  1. Frank says:

    Stephen – I think the reluctance to link is partly because they have not been in the habit of doing so. It didn’t make particular sense in the print days when the only way to access scholarly articles would have been through a visit to an academic or research library. In today’s world things have moved on but journalism hasn’t (sound lime a familiar story? ;-). There’s a kind of parallel to scholarly communication more broadly, and it’s reluctance to change in the kind of ways that Cameron Neylon talks about.

  2. Frank says:

    The story about culling pigs is shocking, if accurate. Mass culls are always uncomfortable to read about – remember all those stories of burning cattle in the UK just a few years ago? I read recently about a cull of pigs in Egypt in 2009, at the height of the H1N1 outbreak. It was covered in the news at the time but the background story was again shocking.

  3. Stephen says:

    The link habit is slowly being learned. I gather the BBC website now tries to make sure to include links to the primary paper when reporting on the scientific literature. But in this case the problem is particularly bad because it seems that not even basic fact checking has been done. That said, I haven’t made any further enquiries today myself.

    The question of whether or not to cull is a difficult one. Culls are unpleasant and unpopular. Though the UK has traditionally resorted to this measure, in the aftermath of the 2001 outbreak there has been a shift in policy so that vaccination is more likely to be used as a control measure.

    However, there are residual problems with vaccination. The vaccine does not actually prevent infection, although it suppresses the symptoms and therefore the spread of the virus. As a result, it is difficult to tell the difference between a vaccinated animal and one that has been infected and recovered – both will have antibodies to the virus coat protein in their blood. And since infected animals can harbour the virus once they’ve recovered, this means, I believe, that vaccinated animals are likely to be slaughtered.

  4. chall says:

    As upset one can be about culling or not, I’m on the fence but sometimes it is necessary (as for the Egyptian pigs – not, since it wasn’t part of the problem) my main concern would be the effectiveness of killing the pigs like that. I mean, the FMDV would be technically spread unless the mass graves are solid and not spreading to other sources, not to mention (as it was in the article apparently?) the problem with the people killing the pigs like that. (the aftermath and the psychological toll of seeing all those animals tossed in a dug hole, covered in plastic or not.)

    After all, it would be apparent that the pigs suffer and that they are bigger animals (which seems to be more of a problem looking at research at distress in people and animal size) – not to mention sentinel animals that we can use for transplants. (other things would be that they don’t seem to test for FMDV in the population they kill, which would be interesting since that would show how infected the population is.)

    All that said, I still find the method of killing a slightly ineffective one, which is why I wouldn’t think of it as a first one. Maybe because I automatically think of gas/slaughter mask/other likewise killing methods when I think of culling. Probably due to my slightly sheltered training? (maybe sarcasm – I would just never consider buried alive as an alternative method)

  5. chall says:

    As for the linkage or not, I do agree – it should be a link since there is so much odd things spreading around the internet…. and hoaxes do spread quicker than before.

  6. KristiV says:

    While the story is shocking, particularly if the numbers are accurate, certain aspects are, sadly, believable. If you had to load 50 doomed pigs onto a truck, it would be much easier and quicker to herd them, from a chute or pen, up a ramp into the bed, than to euthanize them first and heave the carcasses into it for transport to the burial site. Definitely not the humane thing to do, but likely the path of least resistance.

    • chall says:

      Well, I guess I don’t see the problem – if we are talking hypotheticals here – to herd the pigs into a truck and gas them there, dump the bodies afterwards. But of course, you are correct that part of my inability to “get it” is that I hear the screaming of the pigs* when I try and understand how you tip them alive into a big hole…

      *I have moved animals into trucks going to slaughter houses and been in slaughter houses so I’m not completely naive, just don’t see the effectiveness with this particular type of killing

      • KristiV says:

        I don’t think (and didn’t write) that it’s an effective way to kill the pigs – in fact burying an animal that normally roots around in soil and leaf litter with its snout, and can probably close its nares to some extent, seems like it wouldn’t work at all. That makes it all the more horrible. And I don’t understand how anyone could tip them alive into a pit or push dirt on top of them either.

        In the US, cattle are killed by the captive bolt method in slaughterhouses; not sure about pigs, but if that’s the method typically used in South Korea, then I doubt the slaughterhouses are equipped to gas them in the bed of a truck.

        • chall says:

          KristiV: I never wanted it to read as you stated it was an effective way. I was trying to understand WHY one would choose that method and as both you and Stephen pointed at it might be a quicker way… which it might be. As for the closing of nostrils, now I feel even sicker about it all. Sorry if it came out wrong in my earlier comment?!

          Afaik, pigs are killed in slaughter houses with CO2 gas on a rotating “cradle”-like thingy and then when unconscious the the main artery-neck is cut to bleed them dry and kill them. (Similar to the cattle after the captive bolt, since this doesn’t kill them per se, rather rendering them brain dead. it makes it easier to empty the blood out when the heart can help pumping for a little while.)

          • KristiV says:

            It’s a gruesome and depressing business to be sure, chall, and although I know that speed is essential in dealing with the FMDV outbreak, it’s still upsetting to think about the process. Most of us probably aren’t vegetarians (I’m not), and yet we don’t tend to think about or discuss how livestock are handled in the food industry. Makes me glad there are scientists like Dr. Temple Grandin, who do think about these issues, and who design equipment and methods to treat cattle, pigs, etc. more humanely.

  7. Stephen says:

    As Kristi says, Chall, there is a certain brutal efficiency to live burial, however repulsive the practice. My understanding (though I really should know this stuff since I work on FMDV proteins) is that animals are usually slaughtered by use of a captive bolt using procedures that don’t permit any animals seeing others being killed.

    What surprised me about this story is that I had never come across this method of slaughter before. I imagine that part of the reason for the difficulty in unearthing the truth is that if the Korean Govt has permitted or turned a blind eye to the practice, it may well be reluctant for it to become widely known. But that — for now — is speculation on my part.

    • chall says:

      But Stephen, wouldn’t it be a big part of the FMDV research/tracking to sample the pigs you are killing? That can’t be done if you shove them down into a hole. And, since I don’t know, the virus isn’t spreading/being contained in the hole if all those pigs are left there?

      As for other things, I would see lots of potential problems with a lot of dead pigs in the ground – contamination problems that is. Not to mention the smell and the noise when they die. I guess we should be happy(?) that they aren’t burning them alive, since that might solve the storage problem too…

      (I know that the last paragraph looks vile, but I’m too shocked about the inital idea anyway)

  8. Stephen says:

    Chall – in trying to control FMDV outbreaks, speed is a major consideration give the potential of the virus for rapid spread. My guess is that animals on farms identified as a source of infection are being killed, along with – as a precaution- animals on all the immediately surrounding farms. There may be some testing of these animals before slaughter but this just requires a blood sample (to test for antibodies.

    Contamination of ground water at burial sites is a potential problem. The KARA report I linked to above mentions blood contamination of the water coming out of taps in Paju City. But again, I haven’t seen confirmation of that information.

  9. Frank says:

    I had a look at Global Voices online, the excellent international blogging site, and found this post about the FMDV control measures. It focuses more on killing of cattle but also mentions, and has a picture of, the pigs. It also describes the effect of watching the process on the farming families. Very distressing.

  10. Stephen says:

    Thanks for the comments and information KristiV, Chall and Frank.

    That link does make for disturbing reading, Frank, though in the case of that particular account it’s clear that the animals were killed by lethal injection. Still a horrible business for all concerned — it is striking that even the local official charges with getting the farmer to comply with the cull was upset at the job he had to do.

    Also, that report mentions that animals within a 5 km radius of infected farms are killed – this is a much bigger radius than in used elsewhere, I believe.

    I have dug up a couple more links on Korean news sites that add weight to the reports that live burial is being practiced – here and here – though again in neither case is there a solid indication of how many animals are involved.

    It may simply be that, because the situation is so serious (and the drastic measures taken by the government are an indication of that), no-one is quite sure yet of what exactly is happening on the ground. However, that doesn’t excuse new organisation from printing sensational headlines. If the information feeding the story is uncertain, that should be reflected in the reporting. But I guess that’s a scientific standpoint, not a journalistic one.

    I did find the Sky News reporter, Katharine Higgins, on Twitter and put to her a question about the source of her story but haven’t heard back. I also left an enquiring comment beneath the story on the Sky News web-site but it hasn’t appeared.

  11. Juree H says:

    Hello Prof Curry,

    I guess this is a good opportunity to say hi!

    So the headlines I have seen so far in the Korean media have stated that, like the Sky News report, 1.1 million animals have been buried (number quoted from the Korean Agricultural Ministry). The media hasn’t dealt with in detail on how they were buried, but angry protestors (including farmers and animal rights activists) are claiming that most of them are, indeed, buried alive. When the Korean Agricultural Ministry was addressed about this issue, they admitted that along with the shortage of FMDV vaccines, there has been a shortage of anaesthetics (they are reported to use succinylcholine.. which already has issues of its own because it is a muscle relaxant and may not be effective in actually killing the animal), and that they have been ‘guiding’ people to use methods such as CO2 suffocation instead. But unfortunately, people don’t have much experience of this, and in fact, there is also a shortage of people to deal with this crisis, as well.

    So in short, it is a national catastrophe, and although there aren’t actual figures to how many animals were buried alive, as of this moment, it seems like it is the government’s only way to deal with this issue.

  12. Stephen says:

    Hi Juree, lovely to hear from you — please call me Stephen. (For those who don’t know, Juree, who is from Korea, did a Masters project on foot-and-mouth disease virus in my lab a couple of years ago).

    It’s particularly useful to have input from someone in Korea. Your account confirms my growing impression that live burial is going on but no-one has a good idea of how extensive is the practice — presumably because of the chaos on the ground. It sounds like the government is vastly over-stretched in its efforts to control the disease. This is an indicator of just how much fear there is of FMD. It must be a dreadful experience for the farmers involved – if the story that Frank linked to is anything to go by.

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