TORONTO — A meat processing and packaging company that has been accused of animal mistreatment in the past, lobbied the Ontario government for a bill which could prevent undercover journalists and activists from investigating it.
Maple Leaf Foods Inc. is on the provincial lobbyist registration in “support” for Bill 156, also known as the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act. The legislation, which passed on June 17, enhances protections for farms and meat processing facilities from trespassers and people who interfere with animals, imposing a maximum $15,000 fine for first-time offences and $25,000 for subsequent violations. It also allows for the owners or occupiers of these facilities to arrest trespassers themselves.
The bill has been labelled as an “ag-gag” law by critics, because it prohibits anyone from entering a farm or slaughterhouse without the consent of its owner, which cannot be given under false pretenses.
According to the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), this directly targets undercover journalists and whistleblowers from reporting animal cruelty and unsafe working conditions.
“Similar legislation in the United States has been struck down,” the CAJ notes in a news release criticizing the legislation.
Maple Leaf Foods has been the target of undercover filming — and allegations of animal mistreatment — in the past.
“Despite the government billing it as an anti-trespassing piece of legislation, it really goes far beyond that, and what it would do is shut down undercover exposés or investigations into farms — where someone gets a job at a farm and if they see cruelty, they film it,” said Camille Labchuk, lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice, a national animal law advocacy organization. “Bill 156 directly targets that activity, which interferes with free expression.”
In 2014, rights group Mercy For Animals Canada used a hidden camera to film conditions at a chicken hatchery owned by Maple Leaf. The footage, which was later shared with the CBC, allegedly showed dead chicks coming out of a dishwasher. A veterinarian who reviewed the video told the news outlet that the chicks had died from either being “cooked alive” or drowning.
In 2018, activist-shot footage also caused the company to be investigated — but later cleared — by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), a federal agency which regulates livestock transportation. Manitoba Animal Save had taken videos outside of a Maple Leaf facility, which they alleged showed extremely dehydrated pigs climbing over top of one another in trucks.
“Our company is deeply committed to improving our animal welfare practices continually.”
The CFIA determined the company was in compliance with its transportation requirements and closed the investigation.
“The incidents you reference spurred us to work even harder to enhance our level of welfare and incident reporting in our farms and operations,” wrote Janet Riley, the vice-president, communications and public affairs of Maple Leaf Foods in an email to HuffPost.
She added that Maple Leaf now contracts a third-party company to monitor its animal handling remotely via video, conduct ongoing audits and to provide an alert system, which is used if something is observed remotely that needs to be addressed immediately.
“Our company is deeply committed to improving our animal welfare practices continually. Most people who know our practices … will tell you that we are leaders in the industry,” wrote Riley. “In the last year alone we’ve made important investments to increase the level of welfare we provide to our pigs and our chickens, like climate controlled trucks for our poultry.”
‘Bad for their bottom line’: Labchuk
In response to questions regarding Maple Leaf’s support for Bill 156, Riley provided a copy of Maple Leaf’s vice-president of animal care Kathleen Long’s testimony to the Standing Committee on General Government, which met to consider the bill.
Long, who is also a veterinarian, said that while it’s “imperative” individuals have the right to assembly and to express their views, there’s been an “alarming increase in instances where animal activists have taken steps far beyond lawful assembly.”
“Risks resulting from invasive animal protests – animal disease, stress, reduced welfare such as from transport interruptions and food safety, are why I applaud the introduction of Bill 156,” said Long. “It will benefit animal agriculture by encouraging animal activists to use other, more effective, and safer means to have their messages heard.”
Long’s sentiments are echoed by Ernie Hardeman, the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs. Hardeman told HuffPost that Bill 156 was borne out of concerns from farmers and those in the food industry regarding trespassing on farms, which “was becoming ever more frequent, and also ever more intense,” but the ministry couldn’t say how many incidents there have been.
According to the minister, trespassers put food safety at risk, as they can carry diseases into farms which harm the animals. They could also startle the animals, causing them to trample one another.
“They’re trying to protect their financial interests, because they know that transparency is bad for their bottom line.”
Yet Labchuk, who also spoke before the committee, says that supporters who testified in favour of the bill were “directly profiting from using animals.”
“They’re trying to protect their financial interests, because they know that transparency is bad for their bottom line. So whether that’s Maple Leaf Foods, [or] whether that industry groups, like Chicken Farmers of Ontario, or sheep farmers,” she said.
Animal Justice was on Ontario’s lobbyist registry as well, but was lobbying to “stop elements of [Bill 156] that would interfere with Charter-protected rights, including the ability of whistleblowing employees to expose hidden animal cruelty,” according to the registration.
A question of constitutionality
During a debate before its passing, John Vanthof — New Democratic MPP and critic for agriculture and food, and rural development — called the section of Bill 156 which invalidates consent made under false pretenses an “anti-whistleblower poison pill.”
“We can’t ever see what happens on farms. Animals in farms are warehoused behind closed doors, they’re crammed into tiny, dark windowless warehouses most of the time, and there’s simply no way for the public to ever get a glimpse of what goes on, unless a whistleblower gets in there,” said Labchuk. “With that source of information shut off, it becomes enormously damaging to all the groups who are trying to advocate for better standards for animals.”
In a press release regarding the passing of Bill 156, the ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs referenced the 2019 Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act. The ministry says the PAWS Act gives the province the strongest penalties in Canada for people who are convicted of animal abuse, and is the first provincial government-based animal welfare enforcement system in Canada.
“Animal welfare inspectors are empowered under the PAWS Act to conduct both proactive and reactive inspections for the purpose of determining compliance with standards of care, administrative requirements or the reasonable and generally accepted practices of agricultural animal care, management or husbandry. This may include inspections of farms,” said Brent Ross, a spokesperson for the ministry of the solicitor general, in an email.
He added that the ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs conducts inspections of provincially-licensed meat processing plants, while the CFIA is responsible for any inspections of federally-licensed meat processing plants.
However, the PAWS Act provides an exception to activities regarding “agricultural animal care, management or husbandry” when it comes to causing, permitting or exposing animals to undue risk of distress. It also exempts certain agricultural activities from following standards of care and administrative requirements “established by regulation.”
Minister Hardeman says he believes Bill 156 balances the safety and security of Ontarians’ food, and the well-being of the farmers, with the ability to demonstrate.
“We want to make sure we protect everyone’s right to freedom of speech...they have a right to do that on that public property,” he said. “We have absolutely no tolerance for [the] mistreatment of any animals.”
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), “ag-gag” legislation has been struck down in several states where it has passed — although it failed to pass in numerous others — for being unconstitutional. Most recently, a North Carolina court struck down similar legislation there in June.
“We’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends,” said Labchuk. “In the end, the animal advocates win and the legislation is struck down. But what happens in the meantime, is that the farmers get dragged through the mud every time there’s a court appearance. Footage gets replayed, people start discussing what it is that farmers want to hide.”
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