Activists vs. factory farms

Groups want consumers to force changes in egg and pork production

Nov. 6, 2006
The Toronto Star

Smelling blood in the food industry, animal welfare activists in Canada and the U.S. are preparing to step up their campaigns against factory farming, with much of their focus on how eggs and pork are produced.

"Eggs are the new veal," Paul Shapiro, of the Humane Society of the United States, told a conference on humane food in Toronto.

With farm group representatives sitting in the audience, Shapiro and his Canadian counterparts urged the food industry to stop their costly public relations campaigns and to spend the money instead on making real changes to animal welfare. "If you are taking part in brutal, cruel practices, your days are numbered," said John Youngman, director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, which sponsored the conference.

Industry spokesperson Jackie Wepruk, who attended the conference for the National Farm Animal Care Council, an umbrella group for food companies and farm groups, said the industry is interested in good animal welfare. "We are looking at renewing the codes of practice" for animal care, she said, pointing out that they have not been updated for more than 20 years.

Youngman's group is an umbrella organization of 27 humane societies and animal welfare groups across the country that have already held several protests outside grocery stores — mostly those belonging to the Loblaw chain — with more in the works.

The coalition has also launched postcard campaigns in which consumers are asked to mail pre-written cards to the heads of food companies such as Loblaw or Maple Leaf Foods asking them to require more strict animal welfare standards from their suppliers.

Based in Manitoba, where the hog industry has been booming in recent years thanks to a Maple Leaf plant in Brandon, Youngman has put much of his effort into fighting the use of narrow crates to house sows in giant barns.

One of his tactics is to set up one of the crates outside a grocery store, with a life-sized sow doll inside. He said most people are shocked to see the living conditions under which sows live, in crates so small they cannot turn around. Many challenge him on whether such conditions really exist, he said.

"Once you convince them, you can get them to sign anything," he says, referring to the postcards and petitions he always has on hand at such a demonstration.

Stephanie Brown, another director of the coalition and the food animal co-ordinator of the Toronto-based Animal Alliance of Canada, said consumers should expect to see more such demonstrations and postcard appeals outside their grocery stores.

One postcard, aimed at Loblaw, calls on the company to ensure that the eggs it sells are not from hens housed in tiny cages known as battery cages, which restrict their movement and allow farmers to put more hens in one barn, increasing efficiency.

Shapiro said battery cages provide each hen with a space smaller than an 8 1/2 by 11 letter-sized sheet of paper.

Another postcard, targeting Maple Leaf Foods, Canada's largest hog slaughtering company, calls for the phasing out of gestation crates to house sows. The idea of the postcards is to convince the companies that their customers want these changes, Youngman said.

The coalition has made chicken costumes and human-sized battery cages that it will be shipping to protests across the country over the next few months and into the spring. Protests have already been held in Toronto, Guelph and Halifax, with more planned for Winnipeg, Montreal, Vancouver and Courtenay, B.C.

At the protests, demonstrators wear the costumes and get in the cage to show how cramped the conditions are. Other protestors then hand out the postcards and petitions.

Wepruk rejected the idea that the industry does not know what consumers want, saying they are represented in her group in several ways: through the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies and associations that represent grocery and food manufacturing companies such as Loblaw and Maple Leaf.

Shapiro said consumer-based campaigns can be effective, citing companies from McDonald's to Ben and Jerry's that have made public commitments to getting their food ingredients from more ethical sources.

"Agriculture has not been at the forefront," he said. "Companies that are retailers have been at the forefront."