op ed articles

Inching toward humane treatment for food animals

Lynn Kavanagh
Special to the Sun

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Unlike the stories of companion animal abuse that occasionally surface and flood the media, the plight of millions of farm animals living a bleak, painful existence on today's industrialized farms rarely receives media attention.

On the contrary, their treatment is largely kept hidden from public view. The sad reality is, however, that few farm animals see the light of day, except on the way to auction or to the slaughter house. Worse still, many are confined their entire lives with little room to move, and undergo painful mutilations such as castration, tail-docking and branding without anesthesia or pain relief.

In addition to their stressful life on the farm, most food animals are forced to endure the agony of long-distance transport. Current federal legislation stipulates that it's legal to transport food animals anywhere from 36 to 52 hours (depending on the species) without water, food or a rest stop. Animals are subjected to rough handling and outright abuse during transport.

But hope is in the air. A few months ago Maple Leaf Foods, Canada's largest pork producer, announced that it would phase out sow stalls (also called gestation crates) – a system that keeps mother pigs confined and unable to turn around virtually their entire adult lives – over the next decade in favour of group housing for company owned sows.

Hens raised for egg production are crammed so tightly in cages they can't even spread a wing. Most animal welfare experts agree hens suffer both physically and psychologically from such restrictive confinement. Two weeks ago, Richmond became the first city in Canada to commit to
using only cage-free eggs in its city-run facilities. Langara College also recently announced that it will use only cage-free eggs in its dining facilities. The University of Guelph has declared that it will offer patrons a choice of cage-free or regular eggs in its cafeterias. More than half of Guelph students surveyed said they'd rather pay 20 cents more per egg than eat a product from a hen that lives a miserable existence in a crowded, barren cage.

Drastic changes are needed on the transport front. The 30-year old regulations are under revision by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, although they have not yet been introduced by the government.

However, despite claims about concern for animal welfare, the agribusiness lobby has successfully undermined a sweeping overhaul of transport regulations needed to improve animal welfare. Instead, a modest, watered-down version is being considered.

The progress is encouraging, but more action is needed to help farm animals. Maple Leaf has set the stage for other pork producers to follow. The egg industry has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to animal welfare by initiating a similar phase-out of battery cages.

Institutions such as universities and city councils, as well as corporations, can choose more humane alternatives such as organic or free run eggs, organic meats and vegetarian options in their cafeterias. Consumers can choose these products, too, and through their dollars
influence how animals are treated.

A solid commitment is needed by federal and provincial governments to enact a phase-out of sow stalls and battery cages, along with stricter regulations and enforcement of animal transportation standards.

Revised transport regulations should reduce travel times and include provisions for feeding, watering and rest, veterinary care for injured animals, temperature-controlled environments, maximum loading densities, trained drivers and proper inspection to ensure regulations are being
followed.

In Europe, both sow stalls and battery cages are being phased out, with a total ban taking effect in 2013 and 2012 respectively. Sow stalls are already banned in the United Kingdom, along with veal crates. Sweden, United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland, Florida and Arizona have also banned
sow stalls for the simple reason they seriously compromise the pigs' welfare. In the U.S., more than 100 universities and colleges and corporations such as AOL and Google have pledged to use only cage-free eggs in their food service facilities.

The European Union has also radically improved regulations for the transport of farm animals. It calls for driver training and vehicle specifications, and allowable transport times are substantially less than those in Canada and include provisions for rest, water, food and animal handling.

Right now the agribusiness industry views living animals as production units.

A change in attitude and collective action is needed to ensure farm animal welfare is a priority for industry, government, retailers and consumers.

Lynn Kavanagh is a director with the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007