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Canada’s bacon and eggs, part 1

Animal rights activism is alive and well in Canada as evidenced by more secret undercover video that was recently released to the public and the media. The egg-laying industry and the pork business have both been targeted in Canada by the same group, less than a year apart. Meanwhile, both industries face major investments in transitioning their infrastructure to meet new animal welfare challenges in an economy where consumers expect more for less. Join us as we take a close look at both of these industries in Canada, and what the new world of navigating animal activism while balancing the need for animal welfare is really like.

Mercy For Animals Canada has released another video – this one targeting the egg industry. Entitled “Egg McMisery, Cracking Open Canada’s Rotten Egg Industry,” the short video compilation features two egg farms in Alberta. CTV’s national investigative news program, W5, featured footage gathered by the animal rights organization and produced a show dedicated to the exposé. In response, egg industry advocates across the nation have clamoured to defend the industry, deflect the public’s anger, and point fingers at any of the actions depicted that weren’t considered industry standard practices.

The egg industry has come under fire in North America for its use of battery cages for laying hens. The cages house several birds in a small area without any opportunity for natural behaviour such as perching and scratching. The European Union decided in 1999 to phase them out, and the 12-year window to make the transition closed in 2012. South of the border, the United States Humane Society (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers struck a precedent-setting deal with one another in 2011 to phase out all conventional battery cages to replace them with enriched housing systems. The agreement was controversial, causing other American livestock organizations to be outraged, and other animal rights organizations felt HSUS was selling out to the interests of “Big Ag”. The deal has since appeared to fall apart.

The battery cages were introduced to the industry several decades ago, and they helped improve production and welfare. There was less competition for food, less cannibalizing of hens, the eggs were cleaner, and there were fewer injuries and illnesses in the animals However, the battery cages came at a cost by eliminating most of the opportunity for the hens to express their natural behaviours. Animal welfare in recent years has gone in a more holistic direction that takes several factors into consideration to determine what ideal conditions may be for animal husbandry. Other options, such as free-range production or enriched cages are being used by producers, but it’s a complex and subjective issue as to whether which system may be the “best” one. Nonetheless, many counties have arbitrarily legislated how laying-hens are kept, and these decisions are often made at the expense of not just the producer, but the animals as well.

It should have come as no surprise that Mercy For Animals Canada targeted the Canadian laying industry. The most recent Code of Practice for the care and handling of Poultry-Layers was released in 2003, and a new one is being worked on right now. The code development phase is an opportune time for  activists to try and sway public opinion, as there is a public comment period before any new code is finalized. Mercy For Animals Canada released a video about the pork industry when its code was being updated.

Dr. Mike Petrik is an Ontario poultry veterinarian with a Master of

Science degree in Animal Welfare.

He writes a well-followed blog at www.mikethechickenvet.wordpress.com and he responded to the Mercy For Animals Canada video in a way that attracted a lot of attention on the web. He makes many of the points that producers already know, but consumers do not – and the truths he speaks aren’t necessarily hard ones, but they aren’t the ones the agriculture industry tends to make commercials about.

“Modern farms are large. This is daunting to most non-agricultural people. The farms are large because so many people live in cities and towns and don’t have time or interest in raising their own food. Thirty million chickens have to live somewhere in Canada if we want to continue to eat eggs the way we do now,” he writes.

This is the reality of modern food production. Urban consumers have little interest in raising their own food, but they still love the idea of Old MacDonald and his famous farm. Much of the consumer outreach initiated by producer groups seeks to build on that feel-good image, and that lack of utter transparency or promotion of large, efficient farms has likely contributed to the idea of the “factory farm” as a bad development, rather than a necessary one rooted in science..

He goes on to say that activist videos are usually filmed over a period of months, and the worst of the worst is collected and edited to present the worst image of animal husbandry possible.

“Imagine someone secretly taping you interacting with your kids or coworkers for months, and then trying to make you look bad,” he wrote.

This is just like agricultural groups marketing images that present the best of the best, and at the end of the day, it’s little wonder the hapless consumer is confused. Petrik references the Old MacDonald fantasy, and why it’s outdated: “The ‘alternative’ methods are always shown as a Walt Disney film. We need to house 30 million hens in Canada. If everyone doesn’t want to house two hens on their apartment balcony, we need people to make a living by producing eggs for the city folk to eat. To farm, you need to have enough income to pay your bills and feed yourself. The five hens that were shown running around the feet of the cow, on a sunny summer day will: a) feed the farmer and maybe two other people (we will need 29,999,995 more farmers to do this), b) have a much less pleasant time when it is raining or snowing out, and c) have to earn the farmer $10,000 each in order for the bank not to repossess the farm.”

An animal activist video wouldn’t be complete without the touchy subject of death, and at a large operation such as the one filmed, it’s rather inevitable. Petrik puts it in perspective:  “The activist stated that she saw ‘a thousand chicks die’. I don’t doubt it. Sounds dramatic. But think about 1,000 chicks out of 120,000 chicks. If you have five hens in your backyard, that would be the same rate as ONE BIRD DYING EVERY 22 YEARS.”

Of course, there were legitimate causes for concern in the video too. Workers were shown roughly handling the birds, and thumping them on the concrete floor to euthanize them.

“There is no written industry standard, but everyone euthanizes via cervical dislocation.  I know piglets can be thumped, but in reality, chickens are too light for there to be enough concussion with the practice. It is weird, because chickens are much easier to cervically dislocate than to thump. These workers were working harder to do it incorrectly. It seems to me that it was an ignorance issue, rather than laziness or callousness,” said Petrik.

Petrik is one of the people working to help develop the new code of practice for that industry, and he is supportive of using furnished cages, which provide the physical welfare benefits of battery cages, but with enrichment opportunities for the animal’s emotional and intellectual welfare as well.

In part II next month read what the headline “Crated Cruelty” did and what affect a four minute [under cover] video did too in charging up the pork industry to seriously revamp their Code of Practice.

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