With multiple animal abuses exposed, can we trust agribusiness to police itself?

Steve Mertl
Daily Brew
June 15, 2014

This week's news about cows being abused at a B.C. dairy farm would be shocking by itself but for the fact this kind of revelation has become almost routine.

The cows at Chilliwack Cattle Sales, in the Fraser Valley, about an hour's drive from Vancouver, were beaten with sticks, hung by the neck with a chain, kicked in the head while sprawled in pens, as well as left with apparently untreated open wounds.

In what's become a depressingly familiar sequence of events, Mercy for Animals Canada sent a member undercover to work in the dairy operation. The secretly shot video revealed workers in the dairy barn almost gleefully abusing the cows.

The exposé predictably was greeted with shock and a recommendation by the SPCA that eight employees of the dairy farm, Canada's largest, face animal cruelty charges.

And it seems that's it. We move on.

[ Related: Chilliwack Cattle Sales to fire 8 workers caught on tape abusing cows ]

Yet, earlier this year, Mercy for Animals documented appalling conditions at a Quebec veal producer, and an Ontario chick hatchery and overcrowding and cruelty in Canada's largest turkey producer, also based in Ontario.

The year before, video from inside two Alberta egg-producing operations that supply McDonald's restaurants splashed across TV and newspaper reports. And the year before that, Mercy for Animals infiltrated a Manitoba pork producer and came out with similarly shocking video showing cramped gestation crates and cruel treatment of piglets.

In every case, the revelations depended on an animal-welfare organization sending in someone surreptitiously to gather evidence, then file a complaint with animal-protection authorities.

And in each case, industry spokespeople rushed to condemn the abuse, insist it was an isolated case, that there's zero-tolerance for mistreatment, and claim defensively Mercy for Animals was trying to smear the whole industry with the wrongdoing of one bad actor.

"You’re putting in a plant in strategic locations, then running multiple hours of footage and really presenting this very often I think in the worst possible light," B.C. Dairy Association spokesman Trevor Hargreaves told Yahoo Canada News.

That leaves Mercy for Animals executive director Krista Osborne unfazed.

"We attend at these facilities on a random basis," she told Yahoo Canada News in an interview. "Our investigators simply apply for jobs that are available to any member of the general public. They simply take the job at the first facility that hires them.”

Since setting up shop in Canada 18 months ago, the group has done six undercover investigations.

"I can tell you that we have not gone into a facility and pulled our people because the conditions were great," she said "That has not occurred. We’ve gone into these facilities and in each one [we've] been exposed to some egregious cruelty.”

Marcie Moriarty, the B.C. SPCA's chief prevention and enforcement officer, agrees.

“I think it’s a bit naive to assume this is only happening in the places Mercy for Animals happens to target," she said in an interview.

"What’s more important is what the response is from industry, not just when the spotlight's on them but, hopefully, moving forward to put their money where their mouth is.”

While farm livestock falls under provincial animal-cruelty legislation, it's a complaints-based system, which means there's no investigation unless someone blows the whistle.

The various food-animal sectors are largely self-regulating (though conditions of transportation and slaughter are monitored by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency). But Osborne said her group's investigations show agribusiness can't be trusted to monitor itself.

“What we are calling upon is for those to become law, for the provincial governments to engage in ongoing random inspections of facilities," she said.

Her group would also like to see video cameras installed in livestock facilities that would stream live to the web.

“If they have nothing to hide, they should encourage that," said Osborne.

The B.C. SPCA has been calling for the provincial government to enshrine Canadian codes of practice, regularly updated rules that set minimum standards for the treatment of animals in various sectors, into the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

Other provinces, including Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador, have already committed to doing that.

The National Farm Animal Care Council, which includes the various producer groups, has not taken a position on whether the codes should be part of animal-protection legislation, nor how they should be monitored, council general manager Jackie Wepruk said via email.

"[The council] has created processes by which multiple stakeholders, including farmers and animal welfare advocates, can work together to create codes of practice for the care and handling of farm animals and [more recently] develop animal care assessment programs that can be used to verify compliance with the codes," she said.

But who would ensure the codes are followed? Governments are reluctant to set up new bureaucracies to conduct inspections on thousands of farms. And Moriarty said the SPCA in B.C. doesn't have the resources to do it in that province.

“The reality is we have only 28 special enforcement constables to cover the entire province of B.C. And we’re all donor-supported," she said in an interview.

"The province doesn’t actually pay for any of that. We would not be in a place to be doing pro-active inspections per se.”

The same is probably true in other provinces, so who should be responsible?

Some producer groups at least seem to be receptive to independent third-party monitoring of animal conditions.

The B.C. Dairy Association currently is working with the SPCA on including its code of practice in provincial animal-cruelty legislation. The Dairy Farmers of Canada is rolling out a pilot program to train farm workers and is also looking at methods of oversight, B.C. association chairman Dave Taylor told Yahoo Canada News.

“I don’t know if it would be government or an organization like the SPCA. It’s yet to be determined," he said.

As for video surveillance, "I'm certainly not against it," said Taylor, adding Chilliwack Cattle Sales has been encouraged to install cameras.

The Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, which includes hatcheries as well as poultry-meat and egg processors, has some members who require suppliers to submit to certification audits. But council president Robin Horel said it hasn't considered provincial monitoring regimes, preferring to focus now on updating its Canadian codes of practice over the next year or so.

“We look at this nationally," he said.

[ Related: Pigs in Manitoba breeding facility get shocking treatment: CTV’s W5 ]

The Canadian Pork Council issued its revised code of practice in March, two years after Manitoba-based Puratone came under scrutiny in a Mercy for Animals investigation. The updated code requirements will be incorporated in the industry's quality assurance program "which has become a condition of sale to the vast majority of packing plants in Canada," council public relations manager Gary Stordy said via email.

"The program is already subject to an internal audit system, and work is underway to implement a third-party oversight," he said.

Just who will pay for this remains to be seen.

The SPCA's Moriarty believes producers have a vested interest in assuring consumers they value the welfare of their animals.

"It may be they have to pay for these third-party monitoring systems," she said.

It's equally possible some or all of that cost would show up in the price of the meat at the supermarket, just as it now does for free-range eggs.

"There has to be an awareness on the part of the consumer that sometimes cheap food could come at the compromise of animal welfare," said Moriarty.

"I don’t think it’s unreasonable that some of costs are passed on to the consumer if you can be assured that that extra money means good welfare for animals.”

Consumers can also talk to their local food retailers about whether products they stock come from suppliers who've been certified in compliance with their industry's animal code of practice, she said.

“It’s when that demand is out there that’s when especially the big chains will start changing and start stocking more of those kinds of products," Moriarty said.

They can also lobby their MLAs to ensure those codes are enshrined in provincial animal-cruelty laws.

If we can get out the torches and pitchforks for every news report about an abused dog, it's not asking a lot for us to find out if the chicken we bought at the grocery store was treated humanely before we ate it.