Livestock raised for slaughter on factory farms grow up crammed in cages and pens.
It’s legal for animals to be transported in trucks for up to 52 hours before meeting their fate. They are slaughtered on an assembly line, packaged and sent to grocery stores where average Canadians buy their meat.
This is a multi-billion-dollar industry, but Canadians likely do not know how the animal on their plate was treated before it got there.
“Some people have never really thought about it. They’re not aware of factory farming. They have an image of farms that have animals where they go outside, and they live happy lives and nothing bad ever happens to them,” said Stephanie Brown, co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.
Canadians spent $2.4 billion on Canadian chicken products in 2014, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The Canadian Meat Council says Canada exported $3.7 billion of pork and $1.9 billion of beef and veal in 2014.
Meat and animal by-products are a significant part of the Canadian economy – and according to the Animal Alliance of Canada, approximately 696 million animals are slaughtered for food in Canada each year. Those concerned with animal rights say the law doesn’t do enough to protect farm animals from cruelty.
The Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals supports tightening animal cruelty legislation to protect animals from harm (and punish offenders), including the seldom-considered farm animals, said Brown. As it stands, animal cruelty in Canada is only a crime if it can be proven that an individual wilfully caused harm.
“Unless you can prove a person intended to harm those animals, the legal loopholes that are present now in the Criminal Code are such that you cannot get a conviction,” she said, citing starvation and hoarding as examples that rarely garner legal action.
Private member’s bill
On March 3, 2016, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith introduced a private member’s bill to address animal welfare issues that would add the gross negligence of animals as a criminal offence. Bill C-246, the Modernizing Animal Protections Act, would also ban shark finning and would require stricter labelling on imported fur.
Source: Canadian Federation of Humane Societies
The wording of Bill C-246 is very inclusive, so it could affect common factory farm conditions and practices, said Brown, but right now it’s too early to say for sure how it will play out in practice.
“It would be good if it would [improve farm conditions], given the numbers of animals and the degree of cruelty associated with factory farms, but I don’t know, candidly, whether it will or not,” she said.
Without legislated rules, the industry is governed by codes of practice.
Codes of practice are general rules for how different species of farm animals should be handled, but are not the law – rather, they are standards that are enforced by the industry itself. In fact, codes of practice are largely voluntary.
Jorge Correa, technical director of the Canadian Meat Council, said the meat industry is essentially self-monitoring, and this model works.
“All industries, they will have no choice [but to follow codes of practice]. Because now we have not only regulatory bodies, but we have more of the customer pressure… we need to make sure that the animals that we produce are treated well,” said Correa.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency controls regulations for transportation and slaughter, but has little jurisdiction when it comes to the actual farms unless there is already an abuse or violation reported, said Correa.
But animal advocates like Brown think industry standards are inherently inhumane.
“These are totally inappropriate conditions that are considered to be appropriate,” she said.
“I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that animals are sentient beings and can suffer, and now that we’re realizing that I think it’s time to take a step back from the very intensive methods that are currently being practiced,” said Ian Duncan, chair of animal welfare at the University of Guelph.
“I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that animals are sentient beings and can suffer.”— Ian Duncan
“With all farm animals, I think the last 24 hours of their life – so catching them, transporting them, and how they’re managed before they’re slaughtered – could be improved,” he said.
However, Duncan argues that education and gradual change within the animal agriculture industry is more effective than passing stricter laws against animal cruelty.
Battery cage ban
Battery cages have disappeared from Europe because the industry realized it wasn’t the best way, said Duncan.
“Ninety per cent of hens in Canada are kept in battery cages,” he said.
“They don’t seem to be able regard that as a suitable place to lay their egg. Hens like to build a nest before they lay an egg, and they can’t do that in a battery cage,” said Duncan.
He wouldn’t be surprised if North America followed Europe’s example by phasing out this traditional practice of keeping hens. “Already in Canada, Manitoba has decided to phase out battery cages,” said Duncan.
“I think you’re better to look for evolution in the system rather than revolution. I think there’s a limit to what you can do with just passing laws,” he said.
Brown said that when consumers become aware of the realities of factory farming – “that pregnant sows are kept in crates so small they can’t turn around for four months, that battery hens are kept in cages so small they can’t nest” – they realize it isn’t right.
A recent surge in food retailers, including MacDonald’s and Tim Horton’s, committing to switching to cage-free eggs because of consumer pressure is proof of this, she said. In February, the Egg Farmers of Canada committed to phasing out all battery cages by 2036.
“It all comes down to education,” said Brown, and everyone needs to be aware of what happens to animals on factory farms.
“They feel pain just like we do.”
[Header photo © Nora Duguid]
To label or not to label: The GMO conundrum
By Nora Duguid | Codes of practice regulate the multi-billion-dollar meat industry....