Next up on the list coming from the people who get paid to worry about looming “consumer trends” and how they might affect your bottom line: pain. Three out of four consumers tell surveyors “animal welfare” (including the pain caused by common practices like castration and dehorning) is more important to them when buying meat, milk and eggs than the price of the product (although we may want to withhold judgment until you study what consumers actually pay vs. what they tell a surveyor they’ll pay, but that’s a topic for another day.) Self-appointed overseers of animal care, like the Animal Welfare Approved labeling scheme, require pain medication on calves castrated or dehorned at more than two months old. A European Commission directive now requires all castration of pigs be done only under anesthesia or long-acting pain medication.

That apparent concern is spurring more research into how cattle producers could put anesthetic to use, like this recent one from the February Journal of Animal Science. It showed giving calves a local anesethetic and pain medication in the same class as aspirin and ibuprofen did, in fact, reduce both the behavioral and physiological response to these procedures that could be interpreted as pain.

So what’s holding back the U.S. beef industry from wider use of pain management? The latest issue of Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice devoted its entire issue to the topic. The journal included a comprehensive review of the economics of pain management, which identified at least two good reasons the average cattle producer doesn’t consider pain management worth considering, yet.

One important factor, according to authors Heather Newton and Annette O’Connor, from Iowa State, is a peculiar regulatory Catch 22 in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval process. FDA requires all medications it approves for veterinary use to be demonstrated by the manufacturer to be effective for the condition they’re labeled for. However, because we have no meaningful tools to, first, measure whether animals are suffering in statistically measurable terms and, second, demonstrate that any product consistently and reliably reduces that suffering, FDA’s left with little choice but to deny any approval on a product claiming to do so. That leaves pain management up to the discretion of individual veterinarians, using drugs they think through experience and human use ought to relieve pain (and also leaving them personally responsible for any drug residues that could result in the absence of specific ones defined by FDA for an approved product.)

But the more obvious reason for beef producers not rushing to administer pain relief for castration and dehorning is precisely the one you might suspect:

As yet, we just don’t know if it’s worth it.  Newton and O’Connor take a fresh look at the most reliable 10 studies that have attempted to get at whether pain control improves performance of cattle. They found:

  • The two studies that looked at pain medication’s effect on average daily gain after dehorning did show about a 2.2 pound difference when animals were given painkiller; however, the researchers cautioned against over-interpreting, since the animals weren’t followed past about two weeks.
  • Three studies that reported the effect of pain medication on daily feed intake after dehorning found only a tiny effect with pain control, which wasn’t statistically significant. Ditto the seven studies that examined the effect of pain medication on daily feed intake after castration: no statistical significance.
  • Eight articles reporting the effect of pain medication on average daily gain after castration found that regardless of the type of pain management provided and duration of assessment, the effect was so small that it would have little practical meaning in the field. The one study that did report a large effect for animals that were both castrated and dehorned was too statistically weak from a design standpoint to make meaningful assumptions about its repeatability.
  • The two articles looking for an effect of pain medication on feed efficiency after castration found only about a 3 percent difference, which wasn’t big enough to be statistically significant.

The bottom line: The body of work identified by the search does not support, and possibly refutes, any idea that pain medication during painful procedures such as castration and dehorning has any production benefit. In fairness, the Iowa State pair noted, the work they drew from was likely never intended for that purpose—more likely, the researchers were simply looking for changes in the same behavioral or physiologic indicators of pain that the most recent Journal of Animal Science article repeated. Therefore, they didn’t build in large enough sample sizes and the longer time on trial necessary to make any effect—if it exists—stand out statistically. The bad news for the beef industry, especially if it finds itself forced to justify medication-free painful practices through either legislation or imposition by large buyers sniffing around for new marketable claims: Those types of studies big enough and long enough to detect meaningful differences in production outcomes are notoriously expensive.