EDMONTON - Alberta's chief veterinarian says just under 500 hogs have been culled on the pig farm where the new swine flu virus was detected but not because the animals were sick.
The decision to cull the herd was to ease overcrowding, Dr. Gerald Hauer said Saturday.
"This doesn't have anything to do with the flu," Hauer told a news conference. "It has to do ... with animal welfare."
The announcement came the same day several new cases of swine flu were reported in Canada to bring the total nationwide to 281.
Arnold Van Ginkel's farm in central Alberta near Rocky Mountain House has been under quarantine since April 28 and will remain so until testing by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency indicates no infection remains in any of the pigs.
"Due to the quarantine, these animals cannot be moved off the farm as they normally would. The living conditions would soon become unacceptable due to overcrowding and they (the pigs) would have been in distress," Hauer said.
The cull included sick pigs, some that had recovered from the flu and some healthy animals. It was carried out Friday after discussions between the producer and federal and Alberta officials.
The heaviest animals were taken because they would become too difficult to handle the bigger they grew.
"It was not something that we wanted to do; it was something we had to do," Hauer said.
He explained that a farm of that size ships about 100 animals to market every week and another 100 piglets are born to replace them. He also said officials don't know if any more will need to be culled or when the herd may be declared healthy, although it's expected the quarantine will remain in effect for several weeks.
"So we had to get several weeks worth of production off the farm to create the space," Hauer said.
"They continue to be born. You can't turn the tap off, so what happens is they start to become overcrowded and something has to be done."
Other options such as bringing in temporary shelters for the growing population were considered, but "at the end of the day all the options were impractical."
Nor is there any practical way to keep sick pigs and healthy animals apart on the farm, Hauer said.
The carcasses will be rendered and the bone meal and tallow that remains will be disposed of, Hauer said.
"Everything is obviously being diverted from the human food chain and actually we're diverting it from the rendering chain as well, just to be on the safe side."
However, there is absolutely no risk to human health, he said.
"The rendering will kill the virus. It's 100 per cent safe."
Van Ginkel said his family came to Canada in 2003 from Holland with a dream to build a farm and raise a family.
"Two weeks ago, our dream turned into a nightmare after it was found out that our hogs were exposed to the H1N1 virus," he said in a statement released late Saturday afternoon.
"Right away we called in our farm vet after we saw some of our hogs were sick. We have fully co-operated with the government. We have quarantined our barn to make sure that the virus would not have a chance to spread to other farms or to people. Our first priority has been to protect our family, our neighbours and our industry.
"We took immediate steps to make sure that our farm did not contribute to the spread of the disease and that the rest of our pigs are looked after.
The farmer also said all family members have been tested and his six children are safe.
"This has been a very difficult time for our family and we will continue to work with the government to get through this."
He then asked for privacy for his family and his community.
Van Ginkel will be compensated and is putting public health above his own concerns, said Herman Simons of the Alberta Pork Council.
Nineteen new cases of swine flu were confirmed in British Columbia on Saturday for a total of 79 cases in that province.
The B.C. Health Ministry said the large number was a result of catch-up in lab work at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
Ontario reported 14 new official cases, including one involving a one-year-old child, and Alberta recorded four more cases - two children and two adults. At least one of the people did not have contact with a traveller to Mexico.
In Quebec there is one new confirmed case of the latest influenza A H1N1 virus - the third to have surfaced in one Montreal-area elementary school.