op ed articles

Public Relations Over Animal Welfare

Spin, not reform: The Canadian livestock industry goes for public relations – with taxpayer money – instead of addressing criticism by improving the sad state of animal welfare on our farms

Stephanie Brown and John Youngman
Vancouver Sun
November 17, 2005

TORONTO - Canadian livestock industries are coming increasingly under fire for the deplorable state of animal welfare on Canadian farms.

But instead of responding by improving animal welfare standards, they are resorting to good old-fashioned public relations to solve the problem – and the federal government is using your tax dollars to help them.

Pressure is mounting on Canadian meat, dairy and egg producers to pull up their socks in the animal-welfare department. The U.S.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has already been successful in getting American food retailers to pay more attention to farm animal welfare and is starting to pressure Canadian food retailers to follow suit.

Canadian food retailers – who, unlike producers, are answerable directly to the public – have been nudging producer groups to take a more proactive approach to farm animal welfare.

That is why, for the past few years, representatives of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, representing the major grocery chains, and the Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association have been quietly making their presence known at producer meetings across Canada.

On the international front, farm animal welfare is poised to become a serious trade issue. In May, the Paris-based OIE (World Animal Health Organization) – the World Trade Organization's adviser on animal health matters – approved new international standards for farm animal transport
and slaughter, with production standards next on the agenda. Trade barriers loom if Canada cannot demonstrate to its global customers that its farming methods are humane.

In response to these growing pressures for enhanced animal welfare, the Canadian livestock industry has responded with the creation of the new National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC). However, one look at the new agency tells you it is not about improving farm animal welfare, but rather for putting a positive spin on the status quo.

The business plan for the NFACC says its purpose is to monitor trends in the marketplace, respond to consumer concerns and "provide benefits to industries" affected by farm animal care matters throughout the value chain.

Nowhere in the plan do the terms "humane" or "animal welfare" appear. Nor does the plan make any reference to improving living conditions for farm animals, only to verifying existing practices. The new agency is industry-controlled, with each livestock group appointing a representative.

The agency's animal welfare standards are based on national "codes of practice" for animal care – weak, voluntary standards that have been around for ages and entrench some of the cruellest farming practices imaginable: The confinement of five or more laying hens in a cage the size of a television; the confinement of male dairy ("veal") calves in wooden stalls so small the animals cannot turn around; and painful surgical practices such as castration, branding and de-beaking performed without painkillers.

As European nations are busy making real improvements in living conditions for farm animals – including bans on the use of cages in the pork and egg industries and tighter transport regulations – Canadian livestock industries are opting for public relations as a means of addressing growing
public criticism.

They are being aided and abetted in this smoke-and-mirrors exercise by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), which has committed $314,827 to the new agency.

At the same time the NFACC is being developed, individual livestock industries are adopting their own animal care programs as add-ons to existing on-farm food safety programs. An example is the Canadian Pork Council's newly unveiled Animal Care Assessment program. Like the NFACC, it will do little to advance farm animal welfare in Canada.

The program is voluntary and it endorses practices considered so cruel they are being banned in other parts of the world, including the use of "sow stalls." Measuring just two feet wide, sow stalls are heavy metal cages used to confine breeding sows their entire adult lives. They are so small
the pregnant animal is unable to turn around and is forced to eat, sleep, urinate and defecate all in one spot. Even though sow stalls have been banned in the U.K. and will soon be banned throughout the European Union, they are considered acceptable under the Canadian pork industry's new animal care program.

Clearly, Canadian livestock industries are not serious about improving the living conditions of 650 million animals raised for food each year in Canada. They should therefore not be surprised if one day consumers force their hand.