For many, the holidays are a time of happiness, cheer, joy and giving. A central part of most holiday traditions is the food, and though cultural customs vary widely, many families will sit down to a meal involving turkey, beef, ham, chicken or duck. Before digging in, how many of us have given more than a fleeting thought to where that meat came from? Probably not many.
Until recently, that is.
More than ever, consumers are asking questions about our food system, specifically how the animals within it are treated. In fact, the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity conducted a revealing study this year, in which 61 per cent of Canadians said they are "unsure" that "Canadian meat is derived from humanely treated animals." This rising concern for farm animal welfare is a positive sign for advocates dedicated to informing the public about the hidden horrors inside factory farms that supply most of our food.
The meat, dairy and egg industries, however, were less pleased. Together, these industries are spending a lot of time talking about the need to "restore public trust" and "address misconceptions"about how meat, dairy and eggs are produced. That the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity held its third annual Public Trust Summit last month is a perfect example of this, as is the existence of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (a flagrant oxymoron given the huge environmental toll of farming cows).
It raises the question: if there is nothing wrong with the way farm animals are treated, why is there so much secrecy?
As these powerful and well-resourced industries discuss strategies for increasing public trust in our food system, we have to ask ourselves, why is there so much distrust in the first place? The answer is obvious: because there is so little transparency within these industries. Factory farms are tucked away in rural parts of the country, completely closed off to the public. Biosecurity, though a legitimate concern, is often overused as an excuse for not letting in visitors. It raises the question: if there is nothing wrong with the way farm animals are treated, why is there so much secrecy?
The reality is that the truth is almost unbearable. Knowing how most of our meat is made would send consumers hurtling towards the veggie-burger aisle of the grocery store faster than you can say "tempeh." Many people have already begun to learn the truth about the consequences of their dietary choices, and they are opting for products from more humanely raised animals, like cage-free eggs.
Meanwhile, the interest in plant-based diets has exploded. Companies that profit from selling animal products are desperate to slow the tide, but they are fighting a losing battle. At last count, more than half of Canadians want to eat less meat, and one-third of the country intends to reduce the amount of meat they consume within the next six months. The reasons? Growing concern about the impact of meat on the environment, our health, and animal welfare.
Their concerns are real. Did you know that the average chicken or turkey is bred to grow so large, so quickly that she will likely suffer from leg deformities, metabolic disorders and possibly a heart attack, because her young body cannot handle her unnaturally rapid weight gain? Or that a cow in a large-scale dairy operation has her calf taken away from her mere hours after birth, so that her milk can be used for human consumption? Or that male calves — of no value in dairy production — may become victims of the notoriously cruel veal industry?
Sadly, those are just some of the abuses that most animals raised for food endure. Others include the housing of pigs used for breeding in factory farms, who usually spend almost their entire lives confined in crates so small they cannot turn around, and have nothing to do all day other than gnaw at the cold metal cages that encase them. Then there are the many animals castrated without adequate pain relief, male chicks killed shortly after they hatchbecause they are useless to the egg industry, and ducks and geese force-fedfor foie gras.
The meat, dairy and egg industries know that the story of a farm animal's life is not a happy one. At the same time, consumers are realizing that there are plenty of delicious food options available that are better for animals, our bodies and the planet.
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You can truly embrace the spirit of the holiday season by reducing your animal product consumption, replacing animal products with plant-based ones, and refining your choices to animal products from sources with higher welfare standards. A little bit of compassion can go a long way.
Riana Topan is a campaign manager for farm animal welfare with Humane Society International/Canada. Visit www.hsicanada.org to learn more.
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