10/06/2016 02:29 EDT | Updated 10/07/2016 01:18 EDT

How Farms Treat Animals Is A Hard Sell For Consumers

A black calf looking at the camera from behind a country gate, England, UK.
Alicia_Garcia via Getty Images
A black calf looking at the camera from behind a country gate, England, UK.

News that Canada's largest dairy farm is to plead guilty to animal cruelty charges is another blow to an industry under pressure.

The B.C. company, Chilliwack Cattle Sales, was charged in March with animal cruelty after an undercover video taken in 2014 showed animals on the farm being routinely whipped, kicked, and punched in their faces, bodies and testicles. Still more animals were documented on video suffering from untreated gruesome injuries and infections.

The video, taken by animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals Canada, was a key piece of the evidence handed to Crown Counsel by the BC SPCA, which investigated the allegations. The case rocked the Canadian dairy industry, with the disturbing video being carried on television news across the country. It responded by painting Chilliwack Cattle Sales as a bad apple "We strongly believe this to not be the norm," said a B.C. Dairy Association spokesperson.

Such extreme cruelty may not be widespread, but documents obtained by the Vancouver Sun in September revealed that 25 per cent of B.C. dairy farms failed to comply with a provincial Code of Practice related to animal welfare during an 18-month period.

The documents, according to the Sun, showed that inspections by the B.C. Milk Marketing Board found "overcrowding, lame or soiled cattle, tails accidentally torn off by machinery, branding and dehorning of calves without pain medication, cows lying on concrete, and failure to produce a manual outlining management practices on individual farms."

Clearly, leaving it to the industry to police itself is not an effective way to enforce animal welfare standards and prevent abuse.

But even if criminal abuse could be prevented, would "the norm" on dairy farms be acceptable to the public? A recent University of B.C. study suggests not. The study involved taking 50 members of the public on a tour of a dairy farm considered to be "good" by industry standards and conducting before-and-after surveys about their perceptions of animal welfare on the farm.

Perception improved for only 12 of the participants, with the majority being more critical or having no change in their perceptions. The study concluded that "... it would seem that the farm visit did not result in an overall increase in confidence, as would have been predicted by the knowledge deficit model of public understanding."

In other words, learning about the dairy farm did not alleviate concerns about animal welfare for most of the visitors. Key issues for the study participants concerned lack of access to pasture and the separation of calves from their mothers.

The problem for the dairy industry -- and for all modern animal agriculture -- is that many people find their practices disturbing and unacceptable. And "educating" consumers by showing them exactly what happens on farms is hardly going to help, as the UBC study's authors point out: "The implication is that the livestock industries cannot expect one-way education efforts (even immersive experiences such a farm tour) to resolve societal concerns about animal welfare."

The meat and dairy industries are in an awkward position. They like to say that consumers (especially urbanites) are "out of touch" with farming. Why not put us in touch, then?

Show photos of calves being separated from their mothers on milk cartons. Show cattle standing in manure in crowded feedlots on fast-food burger ads. Show pigs being slaughtered on bacon packages.

Not likely, is it?

Instead we will continue to see advertising and packaging with images of little red barns and farm animals frolicking in fields. That's the only way the livestock industry can market itself. Because the reality of its treatment of animals is a pretty hard sell.

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