op ed articles

Take the Cruelty Out of the Barnyard

Canada's meat, dairy and egg industries risk a consumer backlash unless governments move swiftly to introduce tough animal–protection laws.

Stephanie Brown and John Youngman
Ottawa Citizen
September 4, 2002

The rise of intensive animal farming has resulted in appalling living conditions for many of the 650 million animals raised for food each year in Canada, a reality our government can no longer ignore. Breeding sows are kept in stalls so small they cannot turn around. Seven laying hens are kept in a cage the size of a microwave oven. Calves raised for veal are separated from their mothers at birth and kept in solitary confinement. Farm animals are hot-branded, castrated, debeaked, dehorned, detailed and detoed – all without anesthetic – to make them "fit" better into unnatural living environments.

These practices, if widely known, would shock the sensibilities of the average Canadian. Yet they continue to exist in Canada due primarily to weak animal-protection laws that give producers the right to do just about anything they want to farm animals in the name of profit, as long as the "standard industry practice" is followed. What the law ignores is that standard industry practice accounts for some of the worst animal cruelty imaginable. For example, it is standard practice, and therefore perfectly legal, to keep a breeding sow continuously pregnant and immobilized in a metal stall barely larger than her body.

Similarly, voluntary guidelines for Canadian producers offer no real protection to farm animals. The "Recommended Codes of Practice" are guidelines for the care and treatment of farm animals co-ordinated by the Canadian Agri-Food Research Council (CARC), an industry-dominated agency funded by the federal government. Around since the 1980s, the codes have done little to improve the lot of farm animals in Canada. This is not surprising, given that they are voluntary and not subject to enforcement. Moreover, they endorse some of the cruelest farming practices in existence. Sow stalls, veal stalls, hen cages, bodily mutilations – all are deemed acceptable under the codes. This anything-goes system of farm-animal protection has served Canadian producers well. But it has created an unforeseen backlash for a segment of the food industry totally disconnected from animal rearing.

North America's retail food industry is being forced to answer to the public for the lax animal-welfare standards of its suppliers. Succumbing to pressure from animal-rights groups such as PETA, the giants of North America's fast-food and grocery industries – McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Safeway and Kroger – have all announced animal-welfare programs that require their suppliers to treat farm animals significantly better than prevailing industry standards. For example, McDonald's now requires its U.S. egg suppliers to provide roomier cages for laying hens – 72-square inches per hen. That is not a lot of room – barely larger than a computer mouse pad – but it is larger than the Canadian egg industry's standard of 64 inches.

Chet England, director of quality assurance for Burger King Corporation, explained why the fast-food chains are taking responsibility for animal welfare when they have no direct hand in raising animals: "In reality, we are closer to the end-user customer than anyone else in the chain. We're selling the product to the people who will consume it and therefore we have to be extremely sensitive to consumers' needs, consumers' wants, consumers' perceptions. And we sense, based on our read of our customers, that this is an issue that resonates."

In Canada, Burger King, McDonald's and Safeway have followed the lead of their U.S. operations and announced animal-welfare programs that will for the first time affect Canadian suppliers. Loblaws, Canada's largest grocery chain, is being pressured by PETA to follow suit. There is no question that corporate animal-welfare programs are helping farm animals. However, they are not enough. The welfare of 650 million animals is simply too important to be left in the hands of Ronald McDonald. Canada needs strong animal-welfare legislation that protects all animals across the board, not just those falling under corporate programs.

Governments around the world are moving to ban cruel farming practices that continue to be standard practice in Canada. Europe has banned the use of battery cages for laying hens by 2012, and the use of sow stalls for breeding sows by 2013. In the United States, Florida is poised to be the first jurisdiction in North America to follow Europe's precedent by banning sow stalls. Enough signatures have been collected to put the issue on the next state ballot.

In Canada, both the provincial and federal governments share the power to pass animal-welfare legislation: the provincial governments by virtue of their traditional jurisdiction over agriculture and the federal government under the federal Health of Animals Act, which gives it power over the care, handling and humane treatment of farm animals. Legislation banning sow stalls and battery cages would be a good place to start in Canada. Both have been banned in Europe and both have drawn the ire of animal-protection organizations worldwide. And both are intensely cruel devices that are not likely to survive long-term public scrutiny. To give Canadian producers plenty of time to convert their operations, legislators should adopt the same phase-out periods as Europe, namely 2012 for battery cages and 2013 for sow stalls. European-style legislation would have the added benefit of positioning Canada well with global trading partners such as Europe that are increasingly inclined to link trade and social policy.

Without legislative reforms for farm animals, hundreds of millions of animals will continue to suffer needlessly and Canadian meat, dairy and eggs will become as unmarketable as old-growth lumber and sweatshop sneakers. If there was an issue that warranted federal-provincial co-operation, this is it.

Stephanie Brown is farm animal adviser to the Animal Alliance of Canada in Toronto.

John Youngman is chairman of the Winnipeg Humane Society's farm animal welfare committee.