Food animals: How Canada lags on humaness

| September 30, 2013 | 0 Comments

Feed many families and you begin to feed a whole nation. To that end, the UN has declared 2014 The International Year of Family Farming.
This family-by-family focus targets food self-sufficiency and large-scale benefits for developing countries. It aims to supply tools and know-how to small farmers — often women — so they can feed their families and market their produce and, in turn, feed their nations.
Thinking small has worked for micro-financed businesses. In many countries with widespread or regional poverty, climate is a farmer’s ally. As a Trinidadian once put it: “There is no reason we are importing so much food on this island. You just go outside and spit and things will grow.”
And while the UN is thinking small and sustainable, and celebrating Family Farming, Canada is thinking big and continues another year of factory farming.
In this issue, Diplomat magazine takes a critical look at Canada’s industrial-scale farm practices and contrasts them with a major trading partner, the EU, with which it seeks a free-trade agreement.
The following articles rely on findings from researchers, veterinarians, industry, governments and animal-welfare organizations. They visit a panorama of large-scale farms which, in Canada, are mostly family-owned. Many use growth chemicals, extreme and painful lifelong animal confinement and surgical procedures without painkillers.
Crowded and unsanitary conditions drive the routine feeding of crucial antibiotics to these farm animals — even as such overuse is making animals and people increasingly immune to these drugs and therefore eventually rendering them ineffective.
A few background statistics on Canadian factory farming:
• The average Canadian flock size of egg-laying chickens was 19,287 hens, but industrialized Canadian egg farms can range from a few hundred to more than 400,000 hens living their entire lives tightly packed in stacked cages. The average laying hen’s production is about 300 eggs per year (25 dozen). The EU has outlawed battery cages for egg-laying hens.
• 80 percent of cattle are fattened for market in Western Canada, entailing long transport times, with the crowded animals, unable to lie down, standing in urine and manure and travelling in all weather. When they arrive, the feedlots range from a few hundred cattle to 40,000 animals that spend weeks in unshaded, unsheltered pens and similarly unsanitary conditions.

Battery-caged egg-laying hens in life-long confinement.

Battery-caged egg-laying hens in life-long confinement.

The Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Feeder Associations of Alberta Ltd. produced the Alberta Feedlot Management Guide. It is quoted on the ministry’s website:  When it rains, a cow often stands for long periods because it is “uncomfortable lying in the mud” and doesn’t eat normally because it is “reluctant to venture out in the mud to the feed bunks” where it has to “pull its hoofs out of the mud.” One straw bale per head per week, says the guide, or wood chips and sawdust “keep cattle dry and clean.” (The alternative for consumers who buy feed-lot-finished beef is to buy “grass-finished” or “pasture-raised” or “natural” beef.)

A veal calf taken from his mother soon after birth and chained in tight confinement for its short life.

A veal calf taken from his mother soon after birth and chained in tight confinement for its short life.

• Factory farms keep other species: turkeys, minks, foxes, meat chickens, sheep, ducks, geese, goats and horses. Canadian abattoirs slaughtered 82,000 horses in 2012 — an average of 1,600 horses each week. The numbers are high because in 2007, the U.S. outlawed horse slaughter, prompting the animals to be shipped north and slaughtered here.
Killing horses for meat is controversial, partly because many were family pets and riding horses, and because they received medications banned for use in the food chain. Further, horses are difficult to humanely slaughter because of their skittish nature, combined with the fact that the equipment used is intended for larger, more docile cattle.
Also controversial is Canada’s production of foie gras, “fatty liver,” which involves the force-feeding of ducks and geese massive amounts of such high-energy food as corn to cause their livers to become painfully, grossly enlarged and diseased. Their beaks are forced open, a metal tube is forced down their throats, often tearing their necks and rupturing their internal organs. Israel and a number of European countries have banned foie gras; Canada’s foie gras farm operations are mostly in Quebec.

Ducks caged on a foie gras farm in Quebec.

Ducks caged on a foie gras farm in Quebec.

The trade implications for Canadian factory farm practices are instructive. The EU and Russia won’t allow entry of most of Canada’s beef or pork from the animals Canadian farmers raise and Canadian consumers eat. Just last year, before the ban, according to Reuters in Moscow, Canada was Russia’s largest pork supplier. China won’t allow most pork from Canada into the country.
The reason for the EU, Russian and Chinese ban is Canada’s use of a growth-boosting drug, a beta-agonist called ractopamine. It is banned by nearly 85 percent of the world’s countries. It’s a non-hormone growth promoter that adds weight while reducing fat content in meat before the animal is slaughtered. While legal and approved by health authorities here, this is perhaps the most active international trade problem facing Canada concerning its use of chemical agents in animals raised for food.

An injured duck on a Quebec foie gras farm where many suffer internal damage from force-feeding tubes.

An injured duck on a Quebec foie gras farm where many suffer internal damage from force-feeding tubes.

Complaints over its effects on cattle and pigs range from lameness and rapid heartbeat to agitation and aggression. In Canada, Eli Lilly’s Elanco Animal Health Unit sells ractopamine under the name Paylean (for turkeys and pigs) and Optaflexx (for cattle).
Elanco has acknowledged that “during the unloading phase [of transport] the incidence of injured and dead pigs increased with the dosage of Paylean.” By some estimates, 70 percent of beef cattle and pigs in Canada and the U.S. are given beta-agonists. It saves about $5 per hog in production costs.
Exposure to these compounds can cause restlessness and anxiety in humans. In a study of six healthy men given varying low doses of Paylean, results showed an increased heart rate as the dosage increased. One man was withdrawn from the study due to “adverse cardiac effects.”

Beginning this year, Loblaw is stocking more eggs from free-run chickens.

Beginning this year, Loblaw is stocking more eggs from free-run chickens.

In late August, Merck temporarily took its beta-agonist (trade name Zilmax) off the U.S. market over animal-welfare concerns. Arkansas-based Tyson Foods — the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork (10,000 employees) — announced that as of Sept. 6, it would no longer accept cattle given Zilmax in their feed.
Cargill (Kansas-based with 142,000 employees in 65 countries, including Canada) followed Tyson and stopped taking Zilmax-fed cattle by the end of September. It slaughters and processes eight million cattle yearly.
And these trade restrictions and exclusions of Canadian meat may widen, according to Donald M. Broom, professor of animal welfare in the department of clinical veterinary medicine, University of Cambridge; adviser to the Council of Europe Standing Committee on the Welfare of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes and former chair of the EU Scientific Veterinary Committee.

Twyla Francois with a rescued hen.

Twyla Francois with a rescued hen.

Dr. Broom, who has researched consumer response to inhumane practices, says Canada may face increasing difficulty in selling to consumers who object to its farm practices. And, among his list of successful boycotts owing to media publicity, was one carried out because of the poor welfare of veal calves in France. Some British consumers boycotted all French products, including wine. It was temporary for some, but for others it continued until the EU banned use of veal crate housing, tethering (tying up) the calves and feeding them deliberately deficient diets.
Canadian veal calves have no such protection even though new codes — voluntary guidelines in Canada — for treatment of farm animals are being written. The codes are co-ordinated by the National Farm Animal Care Council. EU regulations, by contrast, are legally enforceable. Canadian veal calves are routinely taken from their mothers at birth, tethered in isolated crates for months and many are fed iron-deficient and low-fibre diets to ensure their flesh is pale and tender.

Turkeys on a Canadian factory farm.

Turkeys on a Canadian factory farm.

Crowding animals into unnatural small spaces creates behavioural problems such as aggression. Dr. Broom weighed the necessity and costs involved in some painful surgical procedures that overcrowded factory-farmed animals undergo: “The labour involved in chemical castration [by injection] will be a bit less than for surgical castration, perhaps five minutes less, so that would save most of the $2 cost [the estimated savings found in a 1985 study].” Surgical castration causes a significant reduction in a calf’s growth, which makes the chemical method cheaper, though it must be measurably reliable as there is a “substantial cost for failed castration.”
Hot-iron branding has a small time and equipment cost, he said. Freeze-branding costs a cylinder of cold gas — “probably some cents per animal.” Done properly, it doesn’t affect a calf’s appetite, while hot-iron branding may. The biggest cost comes from consumers who won’t buy meat from hot-branded cattle, a response likely to increase, he says. “Some EU consumers will avoid all Canadian products for this reason.
“Tail-docking (cutting off part or all of an animal’s tail) costs more than not docking. Leaving a sheep’s tail uncut can occasionally allow insect infestation “but this is rare in most places,” he says. Fly problems are greater for a cow that has no tail to repel them.
And in terms of costs, slaughterhouses that flout regulations bear a “very high cost if the public finds out,” Dr. Broom says. “Profitability of slaughterhouses is better if welfare standards are high.”
University of Guelph professor Tina Widowski and assistant professor Derek Haley say factory farming practices are a result of the public wanting “steady and safe and affordable animal-origin foods. We got what we wanted. Now people also have the additional expectation that systems be highly considerate of the well-being of the animals.”
Mr. Haley specializes in animal behaviour and welfare and Prof. Widowski specializes in animal and poultry science and is director of the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare. They cited three areas in which Canada (and not only Canada) needs to improve: high-density, quite barren environments; painful surgery and handling and transport of livestock and poultry. These aspects are being investigated by welfare scientists working towards science-based “acceptable solutions.”
A less-often discussed factory-farm practice is the use of tie stalls for milking cows. The lactating cow’s calf is taken away soon after birth, to provide humans with her milk. The cows are tied in one place so they can be easily milked, and so they require less bedding and less clean-up as a gutter receives the manure.
Some cows may be untied and allowed exercise outside. When they are not lactating, (approximately only two months before being artificially inseminated to speed the cycle and maximize milk production) they may be kept in loose-housing pens where they may, or may not, get exercise out of doors.
Canadian consumers are in the early stages of driving change based on their objections to inhumane treatment of farm animals. Grocers and restaurants are putting farmers and food suppliers on notice that they won’t take their pork or eggs unless the pigs and hens are more humanely treated.
The public is objecting to the confinement of sows in a barred cage for most, if not all of their breeding life to such extreme lengths that she can only move a step or two forward or backward during her pregnancy — and a similar barred cage while she is nursing her piglets. The rationale, whose validity is debated within the industry, is that in open housing, aggression and bullying can be a problem, and that during nursing, sows can crush their piglets.
Animal welfare regulations generally improve for three reasons: governments force change, businesses take the lead and make the changes for themselves or their suppliers, or consumer complaints and demands force the change.
Stephanie Brown, co-founder and a director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals (CCFA), based in Toronto, wrote the overview piece in this issue. Having worked for 15 years to improve the welfare of farm animals — and also the closely related human health and environmental effects of factory farming — she says the best driver for change is the consumer.
For the past two and a half years, CCFA (humanefood.ca) ran ads about sow stalls on television, including CBC and CTV. The ads asked people to use the website to write to the CEOs of some of the major food chains, along with members of Parliament and industry representatives. “Many, many Canadians did that,” says Ms Brown, “and donated to CCFA to help run the ad again.” Edana Brown, a director of CCFA, has reviewed the key aspects of an animal’s life on the Canadian factory farm.
CTV’s W5 ran an undercover exposé by Mercy for Animals Canada on a Manitoba pig farm, with photos and documentation by a male employee working undercover. Footage showed the extreme confinement in cages and cruelty. Nearly 50,000 people signed a petition to ban sow confinement. Twyla Francois, currently director of investigations for Mercy for Animals Canada, took many of the photographs that illustrate this editorial package, both in her current role and her previous work with Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals.
Humane Society International Canada (a Montreal-based branch of the Humane Society of the United States) ran a media campaign to ban caging of sows. They found a spokesman in Canadian actor Ryan Gosling.
By May, an Environics poll found that 84 percent of Canadians want a national ban on gestation crates for breeding pigs.
The Retail Council of Canada announced that by 2022, eight of Canada’s largest food stores: Loblaw, Walmart, Costco, Safeway, Metro, Federated Co-operatives, Sobeys and Co-op Atlantic will refuse to buy fresh pork from producers who confine pigs to those crates. And Olymel and Maple Leaf Foods — two of Canada’s three biggest pork producers — have said they will move away from gestation crates on deadlines of 2022 and 2017, respectively.
Sonya Fiorini, senior director for corporate social responsibility at Loblaw Companies Limited, has written a piece on how Loblaw led the eight-grocer decision to phase out sow stalls by 2022. Loblaw is now expanding the number of eggs it sells from hens housed in open indoor barns. Their eggs are known as “free-run.”  Free-range eggs require outside access for hens, more commonly provided in temperate parts of British Columbia.
EU regulations allow “enriched” or “furnished” cages with perching and nesting areas in still-crowded spaces. Each hen, for her entire egg-laying life, is allowed a minimum 93 square inches, (almost exactly the equivalent of an 8 1/2” x 11” piece of paper) and a cage height of 7.8”. The change is supported by some academics and industry members as humane, but is widely opposed by the Canadian animal welfare organizations that want free-run or free-range housing for poultry.
In the EU, there is no confusion over how egg farms operate, or which eggs to buy. Eggs are individually coded as either organic (hens are given free-range access or fed sprouted grains and organic feed when indoors), free-range, deep-litter indoor housing, or battery cage. Coding tells shoppers a little about the life of the hen that laid the egg they are eating.

Donna Jacobs is publisher of Diplomat magazine.

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Donna Jacobs is Diplomat's publisher

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