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The Treatment of Farm Animals Will Make You Squeal

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Recently CTV's W5 aired an episode called "Food for Thought," which included undercover video shot by Mercy for Animals. The images depict pigs in Manitoba housed in gestation stalls apparently suffering as a result of their living conditions and at the hands of their human minders. It is difficult viewing, but raises important questions about the treatment of animals used for food in Canada, and more broadly North America.

The video shows pigs with open wounds living confined in tight gestation stalls, piglets being castrated without anesthetic and piglets killed with blunt force trauma, which involves slamming their heads onto concrete floors and metal posts. Mercy's investigator sought employment at Puratone Corporation and was assigned to work at a hog breeding facility. Puratone, which was recently acquired by Maple Leaf Foods, says it is "one of the largest hog producers in North America," with 28,000 breeding sows and more than 500,000 hogs sold annually.

Responding to the footage, Puratone head Ray Hildebrand wrote: "we are disturbed by some of the images shown in the video...which do not reflect our animal welfare policy and principles." He goes on adding, "over our 25 years of farming operations we have strictly followed regulations and industry best practices regarding animal welfare." Therein lies the rub. While Puratone expresses concern with some actions and swears compliance with the law, the hard truth is that much of what the video reveals is likely standard industry practice and not in violation of federal or provincial law.

*The following info is from the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies
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Animal Welfare In 2012, Via The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies
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In case soothing reassurances are not enough to lull Canadians back into complacent trust, the Canadian pork industry leapt into crisis management. They called for a review initiated by the Centre for Food Integrity, an American organization claiming to build "consumer trust and confidence" in the food system. SourceWatch and the Centre for Media and Democracy describe CFI as an "industry front group." Indeed, CFI's membership is a veritable who's who of North America's food industry giants. CFI's role is purportedly to provide "balanced information" and "correct misinformation" about the food system. The CFI-initiated review found that most of what is seen in the video footage is "widely considered acceptable and humane." What then is one to make of Puratone's claim that the circumstances revealed by the footage do not reflect their animal welfare policy and principles?

Animals used in food production in Canada exist in a virtual legal vacuum. Take for example Manitoba's Animal Care Act, which is the legislation that one might assume applies to the pigs at Puratone. Although it prohibits causing distress and suffering to animals, that law creates an exemption for suffering and distress caused in agricultural uses. Manitoba is not unique because animal welfare laws in other Canadian jurisdictions contain similar exemptions for agricultural operations and "generally accepted" industry practices. As a result, the overwhelming majority of animals in Canada, numbering in the tens of millions, are outside the protection of the law.

This legal landscape, coupled with self-regulation through industry-dominated voluntary standards creates conditions for suffering to proliferate out of sight. In addition to the absurdity inherent in current animal welfare laws, our legal system treats animals used for food, like all animals, including the cats and dogs we adore, as mere property. This means that across North America billions of animals are raised each year in industrial operations, where they are simply living widgets.

Take chickens for example: Canada allows battery cages to raise birds for their eggs. Caged chickens are de-beaked early in life to prevent pecking of other birds in the cage or plucking of their own feathers. They do these things because they are stressed, living in a cramped unnatural environment. Some say that as a result many battery chickens literally go mad.

In absence of substantive legal standards, robust enforcement, accountability and transparency we end up with a race to the bottom; volume and profit, dressed in the language of "efficiency," are the key drivers and animals become expendable production machines. While it may create short-term economic gains, such a system puts us on morally unstable ground.

There are better ways to treat animals used for food. Several jurisdictions have outlawed gestation stalls and battery cages. Some U.S. states have moved to improve the conditions in which animals live, with California being the most prominent recent example. Improving the welfare of Canada's food animals is not rocket science. It does not need endless study and further delay as the industry is wont to argue. It requires a strong commitment to act decisively and with compassion by all of us, as citizens, consumers and human beings.