op ed articles

It's Time to Go Whole Hog to Protect Canada's Farm Animals

Debra Probert
Vancouver Sun
August 29, 2002

Happy hens, contented cows and frolicking pigs. Bucolic images have been perpetuated in the public consciousness by storybooks, country fairs and careful product advertising. However, fuelled by the momentous changes taking place in the UK and the EU and unrelenting pressure on large retailers such as McDonald's and Safeway by animal advocates, there is a growing awareness that animals raised for food are in fact suffering in massive numbers as never before in history. The farm has become a factory.

In Canada, interest in the plight of farm animals has been highlighted recently by the public debate over the changes to the Criminal Code as it pertains to animals and the effectiveness of the federal "Recommended Codes of Practice." These two controversies demonstrate that Canadian law has failed to recognize that animals are more than production units to be used in as economically expedient manner as possible.

Although purposefully starving a dairy herd to death, as happened in BC in 1999, might result in charges under the Criminal Code of Canada, common farm management practices that cause tremendous pain and suffering themselves do not attract the law's attention, thus producing a two-tiered system for animal justice in Canada. One could be prosecuted for doing something to a dog that one could get away with doing to a chicken, within the context of producing food. That's because the law only prohibits "unnecessary" suffering and since our society eats animals, the suffering caused to them in the course of food production is considered to be "necessary".

Changes to the Criminal Code were introduced in December, 1999 and have painfully inched their way through second reading in the Senate, where they will be considered by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in September. However, it is not likely that protection for farm animals will improve even if the amendments pass. The criminal law is not a tool of industry reform, the agribusiness industry has its own set of laws and voluntary Codes of Practice which are meant to define the parameters of their behaviour.

One of the primary reasons for the delay in implementing the moderate and long overdue amendments is the assertion by farmers that the bill poses a threat to "responsible animal users." Farmers feel that they could face charges for common livestock practices, such as branding, castrating and debeaking even though they have been reassured that that is not what these amendments are about. Their attitude is summed up in comments by Bob Friesen, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, in a national newspaper: "We don't want the public to suddenly be the judge as to what is right and what is wrong when these production practices have been developed by the industry."

But the public will be the judge, and rightly so, as it realizes that industry self-regulation and a lack of enforceable legislation and accountability has resulted in farm animal welfare that is severely compromised.

The reality is that there is little protection for animals raised for food in Canada. While transportation and slaughter are federally and sometimes provincially regulated, even those programs are spotty and ineffective at stopping all but the most blatant abuses. The on-farm welfare of animals used for food is negated in most provincial cruelty to animal legislation by exclusion of "accepted management practices." With no protection in the Criminal Code or provincial statutes, all that's then left to address farm animal welfare issues are the "Recommended Codes of Practice." The codes, developed for each species, were under fire recently at a workshop titled "Codes at the Crossroads." This workshop preceded the yearly meeting of the Expert Committee on Farm Animal Welfare, held in Truro, Nova Scotia and no doubt was prompted by the high public profile of farm animal issues and the pressure on producers to deal with the controversy. It endeavoured to define the role of the voluntary codes as well as their future.

"Recommended Codes of Practice" began to be developed in 1980. These voluntary federal government guidelines were designed to serve as an educational tool in promotion of acceptable management and welfare practices - to provide a template for farmers to produce meat in a way that would be palatable to both producers and the public. It was thought that a higher standard could be achieved voluntarily than by legislated means.

However, the codes have failed the animals. They have never achieved high animal welfare and it's not even clear that they have maintained the level of welfare in existence at their conception. Their very existence is murky - the public and often even producers are unaware of where or how to obtain them. It was expected that all farmers would obtain a copy of the codes. Yet even representatives of commodity groups admit that some, if not most, producers don't even know about them.

Unfortunately, what the codes have done is provide a smokescreen to mollify consumers into thinking that all must be well down on the factory farm. Retailers reassure consumers that their suppliers are in compliance with the codes; codes which enshrine management practices that scientific research has consistently demonstrated are the cause of stress and distress in farm animals - such as intensive lifetime confinement, slicing off of beaks, tails and toes (without anaesthetic) and starving animals for increased production, just to name a few. Retailers consistently, knowingly or not, misrepresent the codes, saying that they are legislated, (when in fact they are voluntary, and not auditable) - referring to "tough animal cruelty laws" that are "strictly enforced."

However, partly due to the influence of animal protection organizations on the large retailers like McDonald's and Safeway, and the aforementioned changes in farming practices in the UK and the EU which include prohibitions on battery cages for egg-laying hens and gestation crates for pigs, a significant portion of the public has become aware that animals are suffering voluminously and needlessly in the production of food. This increasing enlightenment has compelled the players to grudgingly re-examine the issues, including the codes and their relevance in an educated and more compassionate environment. This could mean reallocation of the resources expended - perhaps into enforceable, auditable legislation. It will certainly mean that consumers will have to face the reality of the true cost of food - to paraphrase Dr. Ian Duncan of the Animal Welfare Program at Guelph University in the film "A Cow At My Table", "consumers asked for cheap food. Now they're asking for humanely raised food. The farmers feel the goalposts have changed."

Like it or not, the goalposts have changed. McDonald's and Safeway are setting the standards for food production in Canada. The plight of food animals is a Canadian reality that will not go away.

Debra Probert is the Executive Director of the Vancouver Humane Society.