11/11/2015 03:57 EST | Updated 11/11/2016 05:12 EST

The Poultry Industry Prioritizes Profits Over Animal Welfare

Justin Gilliland Photography

Dogs in Canada are in crisis. They're crowded into dim, dirty warehouses and mutilated without painkillers. They grow so quickly that their soft, immature bones collapse underneath them and their hearts can't keep up. Then they're killed, and even though it's painful and frightening, it's the greatest mercy their short lives will ever know.

Oh I'm sorry, did I say dogs? I meant to say chickens.

The difference matters to us, but it shouldn't. Chickens are every bit as sentient as dogs, each a unique individual capable of feeling pain, fear, and also joy and satisfaction. Chickens communicate with one another, protect their young, and spend their days running around in the grass when given the chance.

Canadians slaughtered a staggering 640 million chickens in 2014 alone, which makes them by far the largest population of animals under human care. What's more, the degree of suffering experience by commercially-reared chickens is considered by some experts to be among the worst of factory farmed animals.

This month, the Canadian agriculture industry released a draft of its revised code of practice for meat chickens and turkeys. The public is invited to comment on this draft for consideration before the final is published next year.

These industry-created codes of practice are the closest to farm regulations that we have in Canada. The government chooses to endorse and finance the industry's development of the codes of practice, essentially outsourcing the task of regulating farmed animal welfare.

The fox is guarding the literal henhouse -- and unfortunately, it shows, as the draft code of practice is badly deficient. It leaves out or scarcely addresses the most important animal welfare concerns. Three years and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in the making, the draft code doesn't even get us caught up to where Europe has been on animal welfare for the last decade.

Most alarmingly, the draft code totally fails to address genetic selection for rapid growth, which renders animals in systemic, chronic pain. Meat chickens today are four times larger today than they were in the 1950s. The rapid growth of broiler chickens leads to lameness, heart failure, and compromised immunity.

Poultry expert Professor John Webster has called such genetic manipulation, "the single most severe, systematic example of man's inhumanity to another sentient animal." Yet, this cruel practice is entirely unregulated, leaving only science to limit how freakishly large chickens can grow before they collapse too frequently and impact profits.


Image: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

The draft code also allows for an astonishing degree of overcrowding: 38 kilograms -- that's approximately 19 birds -- per square metre. Contrast this with the recommendation of the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare, which considers stocking densities of 25 kilogram per square metre or lower to be essential to avoiding major welfare problems.

Some of the worst suffering endured by meat chickens occurs when they are rounded up for slaughter by unskilled workers holding three or four animals per hand, upside down, and throwing them into transport crates. The confused, terrified birds experience extreme stress, and are frequently harmed with bruises, broken bones, dislocated joints, and other injuries.

That partly explains why, in 2014 alone, 1.4 million chickens were loaded alive for slaughter but recorded as arriving dead at federal slaughterhouses.

Despite the significant welfare concerns, the draft code does not tackle catching practices with any specificity, choosing instead only to encourage workers to "minimize stress and injury." Meanwhile, in Sweden standard practice is for catchers to hold just two birds, upright, at a time.

The draft code permits painful amputations to beaks, toes, and other body parts to make it easier to crowd bored, stressed animals into barren environments. Painkillers are not required, and neither is the use of the best available technology to perform the amputations.

If we cut body parts off of our pet dogs and cats without anesthetic or analgesics, we would probably be charged with criminal animal cruelty and ostracized from our communities. Yet, this is the brutal reality for the chickens in our fridges.

Meat chickens are exposed to many hours of artificial light each day to keep the animals awake and eating, but the lighting intensity is kept dim to keep energy levels low. This near-constant dim lighting is associated with numerous welfare problems, which is why the European Union requires at least six hours of dark per 24 hour period; when the lights are on, they can't be too dim.

The draft code requires just four hours of dark per day, and considers very dim lighting to be sufficient for the remainder of the day. Even the Canadian Scientific Committee tasked with providing research to inform the development of the code of practice has acknowledged that this level of lighting intensity is insufficient.

The draft code of practice fails chickens and turkeys in these and still more ways. Considering we kill hundreds of millions of these sensitive animals annually, the least we can do is extend a basic level of humanity. All Canadians are encouraged to comment on the draft code of practice and express concern that, as a society, we are better than this.

For further information and assistance with preparing your comments, please see Animal Justice's guide here.


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