Operators of farms with a large number of female pigs are seeing a worrying trend—death rates are surging among the sows. One industry group, Swine Management Services, says the death rate increased from 5.8% to 10.2% from 2013 to 2016, per National Hog Farmer. "This makes you wonder what has changed," says Ron Ketchem of SMS. Many of the sows appear to be dying from prolapse, the collapse of the pig's vagina, rectum, or uterus, explains the Guardian. So what's going on? The industry is trying to figure that out, with one theory being that booming demand for pork in the US has led industrial-scale farms to adopt unhealthy breeding practices for the sows, including confined quarters, in order to keep them churning out the average 23.5 piglets a year.
“They're breeding the sows to produce a lot of babies," renowned animal behaviorist Temple Grandin tells the Guardian. "Well, there's a point where you've gone too far." A soon-to-be-departing official with Compassion in World Farming adds that the pigs also are being bred to have less fat, which is in sync with consumer demand but not with biology in terms of producing a lot of piglets. "Their bones are weak and they don't have enough fat to support the reproductive process," she says. "We've bred them to their limit and the animals are telling us that." At TreeHugger, Katherine Martinko's suggestion for concerned consumers is to skip supermarket pork and find a small, local farmer. (Thousands of pigs died due to Hurricane Florence.)