02/06/2012 04:25 EST | Updated 04/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Maple Lodge Ain't Your Grandmother's Farm

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has charged Maple Lodge Farms, Canada largest independent chicken processor, with 60 criminal charges for violations of federal animal health regulations after thousands of chickens in different shipments were found "dead on arrival" at slaughterhouses. The birds were both "broiler" chickens, which are raised for consumption, and "spent" hens.

In an industry that favours vague terminology a "spent" hen is a surprisingly appropriately descriptive term. Spent hens have laid eggs continually for their relatively short lives of 1.5 - 2 years and have used up their "usefulness." Because of the impact of producing so many eggs for human consumption, their bones are brittle and they have lost many of their feathers, making their transport to slaughter for low-quality meat particularly grueling.

The poultry industry will tell you that they are well regulated and operate with the highest consideration for animal welfare. In the media Maple Lodge Farms has maintained their innocence; however, this company is a repeat offender -- at the time the criminal charges were laid they had already amassed an astounding $120,600 in fines for previous violations.

In Canada 600 million chickens are killed every year. Laying hens spend their entire lives in a cage, with as much space as one magazine page, unable to open and spread their wings, easily preen their feathers or experience natural light. Due to their lack of exercise their bones become weak and many break their wings or legs when pulled from their cages at the end of their laying cycle -- when they are "spent." A hen in a factory farm lays a staggered 320 eggs per year. Meat chickens are selectively bred to grow to adult size by the time they are merely six weeks old. They are raised in a nearly continuous light cycle and frequently suffer from leg disorders, heart failure and painful skin conditions.

This is definitely not your Grandmother's farm.

The methods described above are regarded as acceptable industry practices. So what and who regulates the farming industry? In transport and slaughter, federal regulations exist but are outdated by international standards. The CFIA is responsible for their enforcement but must do so without the resources to apply a truly rigorous enforcement system that would assure the public of industry-wide compliance.

On farms themselves, acceptable practices are determined by Canada's Codes of Practice which set national standards for farm animal care and serve as reference documents for the enforcement of animal cruelty law. The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS) sits at the Codes table as the only animal welfare group and works from within to try and improve the lives of the 700 million animals raised for food each year. Sadly, change has come at slow pace for food animals in Canada, with little in the way of improvements to animal welfare adopted into the old recommended Codes that were developed in the 1980s and 90s. The new Codes process necessitates science-informed requirements for animal care and so holds some promise for improvements as can be seen in the 2009 Dairy Code, which outlawed tail docking and requires the use of pain relief when calves are dehorned or castrated.

Nonetheless, truly progressive change is still held back by industry reluctance to adopt costly reforms without seeing any premium from the consumer in return. This means the science demonstrating what animals really need is often put aside. In the case of laying hens, Canada's current Code of Practice (published in 2003) requires only 67 square inches of space per bird. This is only about half of what is required by new science-informed European regulations that come into effect this year (116 square inches per bird).

Under the European Council Directive traditional battery cages were phased out over 10 years and are now illegal (effective January 2012). They have been replaced either with larger "furnished" cages that provide some environmental enrichment or with cage-free barns. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), approximately 50 per cent of eggs in the U.K. come from caged hens, whereas 90 per cent of eggs in Canada do. In Belgium, Austria, Sweden, and the Netherlands all cages are banned.

Change is in the air as consumer attitudes are shifting and the muscle of the consumer dollar is more powerful than ever. Consumers are investigating and questioning the source of their food and demanding not only local, artisan and organic foods, but more humane foods. Some consumers in western Canada are lucky enough to see SPCA Certified eggs and meat products in their grocer aisles. Loblaw (the largest grocer in Canada) has committed to selling only cage-free eggs for its President's Choice brand due to consumer demand. This is proof that animal welfare is on the cusp of being a main-stream food trend.

The CFHS believes that food animals deserve our respect on the farm, in transport and in slaughter. Every Canadian who is thinking about their food must decide what is ethically and morally acceptable to them. The Codes of Practice will be open for public later this year. To stay informed click here.