Meat meal and meat-and-bone meal are common protein replacements for soybean meal in swine diets, and spray-dried plasma is essential to weaned pig diets, but the bovine spongiform encephalopathy cases in the United States and Canada, have placed the practice of feeding these animal-derived byproducts under the microscope.

For now, there’s no evidence showing any danger to pigs or humans from feeding meat meal,  meat-and-bone meal, blood meal or spray-dried plasma.

While BSE is the most famous transferable spongiform encephalopathy, there also are TSEs that affect tigers and cats, mink and deer. There does not appear to be a TSE that affects pigs.

In one trial, pigs were even fed BSE-infected matter and none developed a transferable spongiform encephalopathy, which means there is probably not a similar disease that affects swine. Also, in the United Kingdom, pigs in proximity to the cattle that became infected with BSE were fed from the same feed source as the cattle, but the pigs remained unaffected. This further indicates that it is unlikely pigs are susceptible to TSEs.

It’s almost impossible to prove a negative – like pigs are not susceptible to TSEs – but the science indicates that is the case, says Paul Sundberg, National Pork Board’s vice president of science and technology.

“With all we’ve been hearing and reading about in relation to BSE, there is a lot of interest in high-protein, vegetable-based feed ingredients in swine diets,” says Jerry Shurson, University of Minnesota swine nutritionist. “Negative perceptions of animal-based proteins have made some people nervous. Right now a lot of people are scrutinizing the use of all kinds of animal proteins.”

A key question for the pork industry is whether fear-mongering groups are able to rally enough support to convince government agencies to initiate bans based on fears rather than science. So far, that doesn’t seem to be likely.

“There’s virtually no chance the Food and Drug Administration would ban meat, bone or blood meal or spray-dried plasma from swine diets,” says Richard Sellers with the American Feed Industry Association. “The National Pork Board and National Pork Producers Council have been present at all the meetings discussing this subject, so I’d strongly recommend producers stay informed and engaged, and look to their producer associations to make sure sound science prevails.”

If for some reason, FDA does a 180 and bans meat-and-bone meal or blood meal from swine diets, the result could be fairly devastating to the pork industry, says Sellers. It would mean the loss of an affordable protein, and it would put more pressure on soybean meal, which is already expensive.

“Anytime you take away one feed option, there’s less selection and feed costs go up,” says Sundberg.

Economics would determine the real impact on the industry.  “There’s usually not a big economic incentive for meat-and-bone-meal or blood-meal over soybean meal,” says Bob Goodband, Kansas State University swine nutritionist. “Most of the time alternative protein sources are priced relative to soybean meal. There may be some situations because of location or by purchasing large quantities that may allow meat-and-bone meal to price into a diet.”

Still, at certain times, not having meat-and-bone meal could be crucial to pork producers. “Late January to early February of this year was a perfect example of why we need meat-and-bone meal,” says Shurson. “Soybean meal price was high, making meat meal an economical buy. Some producers could save $6 to $8 per ton by replacing some of the soybean meal by adding 5 percent meat meal.”

Another concern is what would become of the byproducts used to make meat-and-bone meal or blood meal. The public probably wouldn’t want all that material in a landfill. And the pet food industry, as big as it is, is not large enough to take all of the byproducts.

Spray-dried plasma would be an even more costly loss for the pork industry. “That’s probably a bigger deal,” says Sundberg. “It is commonly used in nursery diets as it improves feed palatability and helps keep piglets healthy as it appears to have some immune modulator effects.”

There are some possible alternatives to spray-dried plasma on the horizon, but the products are largely new and untested. (See sidebar.)

“When the U.S. pork industry evolved from weaning pigs at 28 days to segregated early weaning, we learned that spray-dried plasma was pretty essential in piglet diets,” says Shurson.

Again, there are no known dangers to feeding spray-dried plasma. As long as FDA commits to science-based findings, there should be no dangers of losing spray-dried plasma. Sundberg says producer associations hope to provide regulatory agencies with information to insure that decisions are based on science.

There is a 50/50 chance that blood meal may be banned, but only ruminant blood meal fed to other ruminants says Sellers. Ironically, such a ban might be positive to the pork industry.

“A ban on blood meal to ruminants could make blood meal cheaper and more available,” says Sellers.

Meat-and-bone meal has been banned from ruminant diets since 1997, because of BSE concerns.

While it appears science will win out in the battle for meat meal, bone-and-blood meal and spray-dried plasma in swine diets, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on new alternatives.

For now, politics is taking a backseat to science, but that may not always be the case. It’s also worth noting that while science supports animal proteins in swine diets, new discoveries could change that scenario. 

Do Alternatives Exist?

As long as the Food and Drug Administration continues to base its decisions on science, the pork industry won’t lose spray-dried plasma as an ingredient in nursery pig diets.  But if the tide turns, losing spray-dried plasma would be a big blow to the U.S. pork industry.

It became an especially valuable tool as producers moved to younger weaning ages. Feeding spray-dried plasma not only provides extra protein for weaned pigs, but also boosts their immune systems. So far, no products have been found to replace spray-dried plasma completely and equally. But, another option may be on the way.

“We’ve been working with some new distillers’ co-products that are corn-based and can be manufactured from the condensed solubles fraction produced by dry-meal ethanol plants,” says Jerry Shurson, a University of Minnesota animal scientist.

Researchers are still analyzing the data, so they’re not willing to say if or how much promise the product might offer.

The new co-products may have properties that improve gut health of baby pigs similar to the benefits often obtained when feeding distillers’ dried grains with solubles to growing pigs infected with ileitis.

“We’ve used condensed distiller’s solubles from ethanol plants and spray dried it, along with two fractions of the condensed distiller’s solubles, to make three new feed ingredients. We’re currently in the research phase,” says Shurson. “We need to see how these co-products compare to antibiotics and spray-dried plasma in baby pig diets in terms of palatability, growth performance, intestinal health, and possible immune system benefits.”