Archive for the ‘Made in Maine’ Category

Made in Maine: Thoughts on Food, Animals, and Agriculture

Monday, August 18th, 2014

Only YOU Can Prevent …

By Donald E. Hoenig, VMD

US Customs FormOn one of my recent flights out of Portland, it was a clear, cloudless morning and the plane flew right over the eastern end of Long Island, New York. As I admired the scene out the window at 33,000 feet, I noticed that I had an amazing view of Plum Island, which lies just off the north fork of Long Island. Plum Island is the site of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s high containment animal health laboratory. It also houses the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research lab. The island is owned entirely by the U.S. government and is the only place in the country where certain highly contagious livestock and poultry pathogens, such as foot and mouth disease virus (FMD), are kept. Special clearance is required to visit Plum Island and security is obviously very tight. Access to the island for workers and visitors is by a short ferry ride. The last time I visited in 2008, the DHS security detail was armed with automatic weapons and didn’t smile too much. Guarding foot and mouth disease virus is serious business.

In March 2001, I was part of the first contingent of ten U.S. veterinarians who travelled to the United Kingdom to assist the British government in battling an outbreak of FMD. (Eventually, over 400 U.S veterinarians would assist in the outbreak response.) The disease had not been present in that country since the late 1960s and agricultural officials were doing everything in their power to contain and eradicate the disease from the British livestock population. The disease was eradicated by October, but at great cost — at least six million animals killed at a cost of $7-10 billion.

FMD is present throughout much of Asia and Africa, but it is rarely seen in Europe and has not been present in the U.S. since 1929. The disease affects all cloven-hooved (two hooves) animals including cattle, sheep, goats, swine, llamas, alpacas, and many wild species, including deer, moose, and elk. It is considered to be the most highly contagious livestock disease and can be spread in many ways — by infected animals who are shedding the virus, by animal-to-animal contact, through the air on dust particles, by manure-contaminated equipment, or by people who may not have cleaned their clothing or boots properly.

FMD has what is referred to as a high morbidity (many animals in the herd get sick, up to 90-95%), but a low mortality (few animals die of the disease). The virus causes vesicles or blisters in the mouth, on the lips, on the teats of the udder, and on the sensitive, growing tissue of the hooves. These blisters quickly rupture causing ulcerations in the affected areas and pain. Affected animals don’t want to walk around and eating becomes very painful. Pregnant animals may abort. Over a period of weeks and months, affected animals can recover, but in the meantime they can spread the disease to other animals in the herd and are a threat to other herds in the region. In the case of dairy cows, milk production goes to zero. Beef cattle and swine lose weight due to decreased appetite. The disease has a devastating impact on the farm’s productivity and income. For these reasons, many countries practice a “stamping out” approach if FMD is discovered. That’s the approach that was taken in the UK in 2001.

What I saw and did in England during the month I spent there had a profound and lasting impact on my life and career. I participated in the destruction of hundreds of healthy sheep and cattle that were not infected but were exposed by proximity to infected herds and deemed to be a threat. I came back depressed and saddened by all the destruction I had witnessed and by the disruption to farmers’ lives and livelihoods. I met farmers who hadn’t left their farm for weeks during the crisis. I sat at farmers’ tables as they cried when I told them their animals would be destroyed. But I also came back energized and determined that we could and should do better for our animals and our farmers. I realized that, while we thought we were prepared for FMD in the U.S., we really weren’t.

In the past 13 years, I’ve been involved in national and regional efforts to enhance and improve our preparedness and response to FMD. Our response plans have been dramatically upgraded. State, federal, and industry stakeholders have held countless meetings and training sessions and conducted numerous tabletop and on-farm, functional exercises to test our plan. A major development in our response planning is the acknowledgement that, if an outbreak becomes widespread, a large-scale FMD vaccination strategy will need to be implemented. Unfortunately, preemptive vaccination is not feasible or practical since there are seven serotypes of FMD virus and over 65 subtypes. Predicting which of these viruses might come to the U.S. is impossible.

Efforts to keep FMD out of the country have also been improved at airports and border crossings through the use enhanced screening techniques and additions to the Beagle brigade, but there are things that individuals can do to keep FMD out of our country. If you travel abroad, please follow U.S. Customs’ rules and don’t bring back agricultural products or food from foreign countries, no matter how tempting. If you’re a livestock farmer and your animals are sick with puzzling signs such as blisters or ulcers, please immediately notify your veterinarian. To paraphrase Smoky the Bear, only YOU can help prevent FMD.


Dr. Hoenig retired as the Maine State Veterinarian in 2012 and, after completing a year-long Congressional Fellowship in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington DC last year, in January 2014 he started working as a part-time Extension Veterinarian for University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Dr. Hoenig invites you to submit questions and comments to dochoenigvmd78@gmail.com. Answers to selected questions will appear in future blog posts.

Made in Maine: Thoughts on Food, Animals, and Agriculture

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

This Little Piggy

By Donald E. Hoenig, VMD

2 young pigs; photo by Edwin RemsbergOne snowy December a number of years ago, I witnessed three large (400-500 pound) sows fall through the floor into the manure pit of an old dairy barn in Turner, Maine, while they were eating stale donuts. It was about a 10-foot fall, but fortunately none of the pigs were injured and once we realized that, we were quite amused by the whole situation. Nonetheless, they were now enclosed in the manure pit of a barn that had been boarded up for the winter. My colleague and former Maine Department of Agriculture employee Dr. Chip Ridky and I were herding the sows together, getting ready to blood test them as part of the state’s disease certification program. The sows had pushed aside several of the floor boards, which were not nailed down, and fell. Now we had to figure out how to get them out of the pit. The farmer got out his chain saw, cut a big hole in the plywood wall and we lured the pigs out of the pit (with more stale donuts) and went on with the catching and blood testing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about pigs lately because I’ve been helping some Maine swine farmers work through a variety health issues in their animals over the past few months. In addition, a devastating disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) that was detected in the U.S. a year ago has many of us on edge. In just over a year, PEDv has been found in 30 states (fortunately not in Maine yet) and has killed more than 7 million baby pigs. Maine has tightened its import requirements for swine this spring in an attempt to keep the disease out.

The issue of swine welfare has also been in the news in recent years because of a housing method widely used in the raising of pigs called gestation crates. After sows are bred, they are often placed in gestation crates for the duration of their pregnancy. These crates allow the sows to stand up and lie down freely, but do not enable them to turn around. They are provided with ample food to meet their metabolic needs and free-choice water. One of the main reasons that swine farmers began using these crates decades ago was to reduce the incidence of fighting among sows. Sows can be extremely aggressive to each other when grouped together and fighting can often result in serious injuries. On farms that use gestation crates, sows will spend their entire adult lives in this type of confinement, which is why the practice has been so controversial.

To be honest, I’ve never seen a gestation crate other than in pictures because I’ve never been on a swine farm in Maine or Massachusetts that uses them. Most of our swine farmers do use something similar called a farrowing crate, but it is only used just prior to the time that a sow gives birth through weaning (usually about 3-4 weeks) and helps protects the baby pigs from being crushed if the mother sow inadvertently rolls on top of them. In 2009, while I was the State Veterinarian, a bill came up in the Legislature, proposing to ban gestation crates in Maine. Interestingly, there was minimal opposition to the bill from Maine swine farmers because none of them were using gestation crates. Our swine farmers have always group-housed their sows, which allows for full freedom of movement except for the time spent in farrowing crates. The bill passed and gestation crates have been banned in Maine since Jan. 1, 2011.

Several other states — generally those that do not have a significant swine industry, including Florida, Arizona, California, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio, and Rhode Island — have also banned, or plan to ban, the use of gestation crates. A large number of major U.S. companies, including Smithfield (the country’s largest pork processor and hog producer), McDonald’s, Campbell’s Soup, Tyson, Costco, and Target have all announced they will eliminate gestation crates from their pork supply chains (USA Today, Jan. 7, 2014). Smithfield has asked contract growers to end the use of gestation crates by 2022.

Have you ever thought about this issue? Do you think sows should be able to stand up, lie down, and turn around freely? Do you buy your food based on a company’s adoption of certain humane or ethical principles? Are you willing to pay extra for this food? If you do, how sure are you that these principles are being followed? A topic for another column, I think.

It may make me sound like a politician, but my thinking has evolved on this and many other issues surrounding farm animal welfare. I’ve come to believe that the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare serve as a good foundation: Freedom from hunger and thirst; Freedom from discomfort; Freedom from pain, injury or disease; Freedom from fear and distress; Freedom to express normal behaviors. I believe that the fifth freedom — for an animal to express normal behaviors — applies in this case, and I am glad that the swine industry is moving toward eliminating gestation crates. I’m also glad that I still get to work with many swine farmers. They’re great people and I’ve gotten some interesting stories out of those experiences.


Dr. Hoenig retired as the Maine State Veterinarian in 2012 and, after completing a year-long Congressional Fellowship in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington DC last year, in January 2014 he started working as a part-time Extension Veterinarian for University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Dr. Hoenig invites you to submit questions and comments to dochoenigvmd78@gmail.com. Answers to selected questions will appear in future blog posts.

Made in Maine: Thoughts on Food, Animals, and Agriculture

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Family Farms

By Donald E. Hoenig, VMD

dairy cows; photo by Edwin RemsbergI’ve been on a one-man crusade lately to abolish the term “industrial” or “factory” farm from the lexicon. I have a sinking feeling that it’ll be an exercise in futility, but I will persevere. Families own the vast majority of farms in Maine (and in America) and they are not factories.

Over the past century, our country has transitioned from an agrarian economy where many people either grew up on a farm or had close association with farming, to a country in which only about 2% of the population are farm or ranch families. Consider this: In 1910, the population of the U.S. was 92 million and farmers represented 31% of the labor force. There were 6,366,000 farms and the average farm size was 138 acres. (Source: Growing a Nation: the Story of American Agriculture, agclassroom.org). Contrast this with 2012, the last year that the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a census of agriculture, when the population of the U.S. was 314 million and there were 2,109,000 farms with an average farm size of 434 acres. (Source: 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture).

But enough with statistics. The point is that farm numbers are declining, farms are getting larger, and far fewer people produce our food than was the case 100 years ago. But does big have to mean bad? Not necessarily. Although there seems to be a perception among some consumers that much of our food is produced on large, mega farms often referred to as “factory” or “industrial” farms, according to the American Farm Bureau, families not corporate interests operate 97% of U.S. farms. And regardless of farm size, these farm families care deeply about the animals, land, and water, and strive to farm in a responsible, environmentally friendly, compassionate manner. In a nutshell, they try to be good neighbors and faithful stewards of the land.

Maine has thousands of these farmers and, bucking national trends, our farm numbers are growing. Increasingly, young folks are taking up farming in Maine, which is good news in a country where the average age of a farmer is 58 years. An article in the Portland Press Herald this winter reporting on the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, pointed out that, while the number of working farms nationally declined by 4%, the number of Maine farms increased slightly since 2007 when the last Census was taken. In 2012, there were 8,174 farms in Maine, up from 8,136 in 2007 and 7,196 in 2002. Maine also has more working farms than any other New England state.

An example of a Maine dairy farm that started out small and grew is Flood Bros. Farm in Clinton. George Flood Sr. began the farm in 1927 at the age of 14. Almost 90 years later, Flood’s is now Maine’s largest dairy farm, milking more than 1600 cows in a state-of-the-art, 100-stall rotary parlor. Led by George’s two sons, Bill and George Jr., who purchased the farm from their parents in 1980, they are a true family farm with three generations and a dozen family members working to produce over 15,000 gallons of milk per day. Through modern technology such as individual electronic identification, the Floods can keep track of the health and well being of each cow — how much milk she’s producing and her activity level — to assure the highest level of care. This family farm is anything but a factory.

So the next time you buy food, remember this statistic: only 2% of U.S. families produce the food that 100% of us eat. You can visit many of these Maine farms and thank the families who raise our food during Maine Open Farm Day on July 27, 2014. Find a farm near you at getrealmaine.com.


Dr. Hoenig retired as the Maine State Veterinarian in 2012 and, after completing a year-long Congressional Fellowship in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington DC last year, in January 2014 he started working as a part-time Extension Veterinarian for University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Dr. Hoenig invites you to submit questions and comments to dochoenigvmd78@gmail.com. Answers to selected questions will appear in future blog posts.

Made in Maine: Thoughts on Food, Animals, and Agriculture

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Don’t Forget to Vaccinate Your Horse (and Protect Yourself)

By Donald E. Hoenig, VMD

blood-filled mosquitoOver Labor Day weekend in 2009, we had a horse head, on ice, in a garbage can in our garage for four days. As you might imagine, my lovely wife, Lynn, was not too thrilled but over the 36 years that I’ve been a veterinarian, she’s not surprised anymore by some of the strange things that end up in our garage, freezer, or basement. I thought of this when I went for a run this morning in the woods behind our house and a mosquito landed on my arm. Black fly, mosquito, and tick season is certainly in full swing in Maine.

In the case of the above-mentioned head, it ended up in our garage because a local large animal veterinarian, Dr. Simon Alexander, and I had euthanized the horse in Unity late that Friday afternoon and the lab in Augusta was closed for the long weekend. I needed to keep the head cold until I could deliver it to the lab the following Tuesday. Sadly, the horse had become so sick from a neurologic disease that it was unable to stand and needed to be humanely euthanized.

As Dr. Alexander and I suspected, later the following week the lab informed us that the horse had died of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE). EEE is a debilitating viral disease that affects horses, many species of wild and domestic birds and occasionally humans. It is transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito. It may not surprise you to learn that Maine is home to around 45 species of mosquitoes, but less than half can carry EEE. The cycle of transmission for EEE generally goes between infected wild birds and mosquitoes with horses and humans sometimes becoming infected. Infected horses and humans are considered to be “dead end” hosts, meaning that they cannot transmit the virus if bitten by another mosquito.

The signs in humans and horses are all related to central nervous system involvement and can vary from mild to very severe, including death. Horses can experience stumbling or poor balance, unusual behavior, and lethargy. Other signs include head pressing, circling, tremors, seizures, and eventual coma and death. People often experience mild fever, head and body aches, and a lack of energy, and then recover. More severely affected individuals can experience an altered mental status, inflammation of the brain, paralysis, and seizures and, in about 30% of the cases, death. Since it is a viral disease, there is no specific treatment other than supportive measures. The disease in horses has a higher mortality rate, approaching 100%.

2009 was a bad year for EEE in Maine. It had been an extremely wet spring and early summer, and mosquito numbers were very high. Our first case of EEE came in early August in the town of Troy and by late September, a total of 15 horses had died of the disease as well as one llama and three pheasant flocks. Fortunately, subsequent years have not been nearly as bad. Maine didn’t have another equine case of EEE until 2013, when one horse died and one pheasant flock was affected.

The best news to report is that there is a very effective EEE vaccine for horses. Of the 15 horses that died in 2009, all were either not vaccinated or had not been boosted that year. The take-home message for horse owners is to make sure your horse is up to date on its EEE vaccination this year. If you have any questions, consult your veterinarian. Unfortunately, there is not a vaccine for people, so we need to protect ourselves and our kids by wearing long sleeves and pants when outside (especially at dusk and dawn), using repellant on skin and clothes, screening windows and doors, and draining artificial sources of standing water where you live, work, and play.


Dr. Hoenig retired as the Maine State Veterinarian in 2012 and, after completing a year-long Congressional Fellowship in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington DC last year, in January 2014 he started working as a part-time Extension Veterinarian for University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Dr. Hoenig invites you to submit questions and comments to dochoenigvmd78@gmail.com. Answers to selected questions will appear in future blog posts.

Made in Maine: Thoughts on Food, Animals, and Agriculture

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

That’s No Yolk

By Donald E. Hoenig, VMD

gg carton showing "best by" dateA couple weeks ago, my oldest daughter who lives on Cape Cod with her husband and our 18-month-old grandson, asked me if eggs needed to be refrigerated and it gave me the idea for my next blog.

Did you know that the State of Maine is the country’s largest producer of brown eggs? Pretty amazing for such a small state but it’s true. Although our brown egg industry has shrunk somewhat in the past couple years, eggs are still 4th in farm gate value (the price paid to farmers) in the latest USDA Census of Agriculture (behind potatoes, milk and aquaculture). The town of Turner has more than 3.6 million laying hens, which lay both white and brown eggs, in complexes managed by Moark Inc., a subsidiary of Land O’ Lakes.

Why brown eggs in Maine and why do New Englanders apparently prefer brown over white eggs? This regional preference dates to the 19th century when Yankee clipper ships and whalers returning from China and the Far East brought back chickens that produced brown eggs. The Chinese prefer brown eggs to white eggs and ultimately these hens became the origin of a burgeoning egg industry in New England later in the 19th and into the 20th century.

The chickens on the Moark farm are all raised in what are referred to as battery cages. Maine Department of Agriculture standards require that no more than 4-5 birds can be kept in one cage. All birds have free access to feed and water 24 hours per day and can stand up, lie down and turn around freely. When the eggs are laid, they roll onto conveyor belts in front of the cages and are carried into the processing plant where they are washed and put in cartons without ever being touched by a human hand.

So what about some of the terms that you see on egg cartons in the grocery store now like “organic,” “cage-free,” “free-range,” and “pasture-raised”? Understanding labels can be pretty confusing so here are some explanations.

The word organic means that the eggs were laid by birds raised according to U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program standards. This means they have not been fed any antibiotics at any time in their life and that the feed they eat is also produced according to USDA organic standards, without the use of pesticides or herbicides. State inspectors or inspectors employed by third-party certifiers inspect the farms, usually annually, to assure that organic program standards are being followed. In Maine, the Maine Organic Farmers Gardeners Association (MOFGA) oversees MOFGA Certification Services, which conducts these inspections.

What about cage-free? This generally means that the chickens are not housed in cages but are kept in a building, protected from the elements, on slatted floors, with the ability to roam the building freely, eat, drink, and lay their eggs in nest boxes. The eggs are then collected automatically on conveyor belts.

Free-range is cage-free with some sort of outdoor access for the birds. Doors are opened during daylight and the birds are free to wander outside. Pasture-raised or pasture-access just means that the birds have outdoor access during daylight to an area with a substantial covering of vegetation which is rotated frequently enough to maintain the quality of that vegetation.

Aside from the organic standards, you might be wondering who monitors whether any of these standards are actually being followed. That’s a subject for another column, but I’ll leave you with what will probably be the most useful piece of information in this blog post. In the attached picture of the end of an egg carton, you’ll notice a series of numbers and a date. The “best by” date, Feb. 22, is 45 days from when the eggs were actually laid by the hen. Thus, a “best by” date of Feb. 22 means the eggs were laid on January 9. If it’s too confusing to calculate backwards and you have a Julian calendar app on your smartphone, the other number on the carton, 009, is the Julian calendar date that they eggs were laid. The Julian calendar date for January 9 is 009, the 9th day of the year. And the last set of numbers, 1129, references the USDA processing plant number where the hens were housed. The eggs in this carton were produced in Pennsylvania. You can look up plant numbers at this website: Apps.ams.usda.gov/plantbook/query_pages/PlantBook_query.asp.

For Maine, cartons with the numbers 2101, 2102, 2103, 2104, 2105, and 2108 were all produced at the Moark Farm in Turner.

Oh, and yes, eggs need to be refrigerated after you bring them home from the grocery store and even if you have your own hens.


Dr. Hoenig retired as the Maine State Veterinarian in 2012 and, after completing a year-long Congressional Fellowship in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington DC last year, in January 2014 he started working as a part-time Extension Veterinarian for University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Dr. Hoenig invites you to submit questions and comments to dochoenigvmd78@gmail.com. Answers to selected questions will appear in future blog posts.

Made in Maine: Thoughts on Food, Animals, and Agriculture

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Just the Facts, Ma’am

By Donald E. Hoenig, VMD

Kids and hay bales in VW BusWhenever I’m asked to talk about raw milk to a group of farmers or consumers in Maine, I always show a picture of two of my kids from about 30 years ago. They’re smiling, looking out the side window and door of our 1974 Volkswagen bus, which is parked in our pasture, filled with freshly baled hay. I tell folks that we used to milk goats and that, yes, our whole family, including all three of our young kids, drank the raw milk from those goats. None of us ever got sick and the milk was delicious. As a veterinarian, I was well aware of the risks associated with the consumption of raw milk, but my wife and I made the conscious decision that the benefits of drinking raw milk from our small farm outweighed the risks for our young family. Of course, we were meticulously clean in our husbandry and sanitation, and made certain that our goats were healthy.

The next thing I tell my audience is that consuming raw milk is not safer than consuming pasteurized milk. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former Senator from New York, once wisely said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.” Well, folks, the facts are in. We’ve had a lot of time to compile and analyze data in this country since pasteurization of milk was introduced in the 1930s. These data — these facts — tell us that the relative risk of consuming raw milk is 184 times greater than the risk of consuming pasteurized milk. Put another way, that means that a person is 184 times more likely to become sick if he or she drinks raw milk than if he or she drank pasteurized milk. And the people most at risk are the most vulnerable folks in our society — children, the elderly and immune-compromised individuals (such as people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 148 disease outbreaks due to raw milk consumption from 1998 to 2011, resulting in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations and two deaths.

dairy cows; photo by Edwin RemsbergFor many years, Maine has been one of 20 states that allow citizens the freedom of choice with respect to raw milk. Maine raw milk dealers must be licensed by the Maine Department of Agriculture. Their products are tested frequently throughout the year and Department personnel inspect their farms regularly. However, the licensing, testing and inspection of these farms is not an assurance of raw milk safety. Maine’s program merely sets minimum standards for sale.

Another fact: In Maine, we have had illnesses directly linked to the consumption of raw milk purchased from licensed Maine dealers. Some folks have been sickened by a parasite called Cryptosporidiosis, a disease commonly implicated as the cause of diarrhea in young calves. In people, it also causes diarrhea for two to three weeks, usually without serious consequences. I worry that someday we won’t be so lucky, and that a child or elderly person will become seriously ill or die from a raw milk-borne illness caused by a more serious pathogen such as E. coli or Listeria.

If you are a raw milk consumer and you have kids, or if you take care of an elderly parent or grandparent, or if someone in your family is undergoing chemotherapy, please think twice about allowing them to consume raw milk. Or at a minimum, at least visit the farm, look at the animals, evaluate the hygiene and talk to the farmers. Then make an informed decision.


Dr. Hoenig retired as the Maine State Veterinarian in 2012 and, after completing a year-long Congressional Fellowship in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington DC last year, in January 2014 he started working as a part-time Extension Veterinarian for University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Dr. Hoenig invites you to submit questions and comments to dochoenigvmd78@gmail.com. Answers to selected questions will appear in future blog posts.