The last few weeks have been a blur for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said Michael Crusan, communications director for the Board of Animal Health. The worst case scenario of pork producers mass depopulating pigs past a certain size for the animals' own welfare is now a reality.
But before the two agencies could start implementing emergency procedures, they first had to determine which one would take the lead on carcass disposal. Crusan said it wasn't instantly clear what authority Animal Health even had, because it was a processing issue.
Rewinding the chain of command
To understand what agency has authority over healthy animals that had to be depopulated, the supply chain must be followed until the very end.
All stages of life for an animal in production livestock in Minnesota are overseen by the Board of Animal Health, said Crusan. The agency focuses on animals that are alive and "helping those animals being raised", he said. In other words, Animal Health handles the animal side.
Once the animal goes to slaughter and hits the point of processing, the Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Department of Agriculture — which inspects the plants, has authority. Those departments maintain jurisdiction all the way through the processing plants and onto the consumer and food supply chain — for the human side.
When there's a disruption in the chain it gets tricky, because an animal exiting a processing plant as food is different than a carcass going to disposal. If it's the latter, it's considered the animal side, therefore jurisdiction of Animal Health.
"We are designed and geared around responding to animal diseases, and here we are dealing with a human disease, impacting things on the human side," said Crusan. "Nothing in our rules or statutes deal with perfectly healthy animals that you have to depopulate in mass."
Animal Health s not working alone in the disastrous time for pork producers, and the agency is executing measures with help from the Ag Department and county officials. So far the biggest step has been transforming land in Nobles County to a mass compost site for carcasses leaving the JBS pork processing facility in Worthington.
Crusan said that establishing three additional composting sites is in the works, with guidance from the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. He said the current site "alleviates the concern by a producer of how they're going to be able to compost or render depopulated animals.
"It's giving producers a solution for disposal," he said.
This week, the Ag Department released a survey to collect information on potential trucking companies that could help transport animal carcasses to disposal locations. The survey is not to recruit volunteers but to find and possibly hire capable truckers to deliver carcasses to centralized disposal sites.
"This may force Minnesota pork producers to depopulate and compost hogs on their farms or transport animal carcasses to disposal location," reads the survey description. "Composting requires wood chips, sawdust or other carbon sources. We are contacting you to help us link pork producers with companies who can transport animal carcasses and/or composting materials."
The questions range from how far truckers could transport, if they could handle carcasses and carbon material in their vehicle and how their delivery cost is determined.
Upping the state's trucking capacity has become a top priority, said Crusan, because disposing of carcasses on farms is not feasible for all producers.
Other disposal options
Composting is the "gold standard of options" for properly disposing of carcasses, said Crusan, but it's not the only option.
Rendering carcasses is another route, and Crusan said it's probably the second-best channel to take because it has a "whole industry that's built around it".
"You have companies that go around to collect carcassses, bring them to the rendering plants and repurpose them into animal feed, pet feed or something else," he said.
"Those are the ones we direct producers towards first, because it's easy on them to get done," said Crusan of composting and rendering.
Alternative options are burial, incineration and landfill — none of which Animal Health recommends right away. Burial depends on the depth of the water table of the land, said Crusan, to minimize groundwater contamination. He said that southwest Minnesota does not have an ideal depth for burial disposal.
Incineration facilities only have the capacity for animals they regularly take in, and livestock carcasses are probably not on that list. Incineration is also one of the more costly options. And the issue with landfills is similar, as it's entirely up to the landfills if they want to accept the animals or not, and what they want to charge for the animals. Animal Health recommends producers always contact the individual landfill before delivering any carcasses for disposal.
An in-depth guide for livestock carcass disposal has also been made available by the Board of Animal Health.
With so many pieces up in the air, Animal Health's main message for producers is to give them a call and see how the agency can help them. A carcass assistance hotline (651-201-6041) has been setup for this very reason.
He said there are still a lot of producers holding out hope that processing plants will be back to unlimited capacity soon and to where they were before the pandemic hit.
"But in reality it doesn't look like those plants are going to be up to full speed for quite a long time," said Crusan.
Animal Health advises producers to call the hotline before pursuing a disposal option. Before making a decision, farmers can talk to BAH experts about the options they have.
"We want producers to call us before they get to that point of saying I don't know what to do, my pigs are too big for the farm and I need help now," said Crusan.
He said the kind of horror stories shared in the past few weeks about hog farmers in crisis can be prevented by being proactive on making very difficult decisions.
"If we can help someone plan while they're calm and collected, if one can even be in this situation, it's a lot better on everyone," he said.