Presented with hundreds of thousands of anything, what do one or two of those things matter? Possession of quantity, whether it is dollars or passenger pigeons or meals, seems to generate a cavalier attitude toward the few.
When it comes to food animal production, that human failing is no longer tolerated.
The television news program W-5 re-cently aired video clips of inhumane and unacceptable handling practices at an Alberta egg and chick operation. Hidden camera footage obtained from Mercy for Animals Canada showed workers from Kuku Farms, which produces eggs from 126,000 laying hens, and Creekside Grove Farms, which produces thousands of chicks, killing immature birds and mixing the dead with the living before incineration. As well, caged laying hens appeared to be overcrowded and sick.
It’s possible, even likely, that the sheer number of birds and their assumed re-placeability led workers to treat them casually and even cruelly. It isn’t right.
Size of an operation does not necessarily increase the chances for inhumane treatment, but this situation does show the vital need for better employee training and supervision regardless of farm size.
It takes about 30 million Canadian chickens to produce the eggs used in everything from angel hair pasta to zucchini bread. Large operations allow producers to economically supply those needs, and there are many Canadian examples of how this is done while maintaining the health and welfare of chickens.
But every example of abuse that occurs in connection with animal agriculture, regardless of type, weakens confidence in the industry as a whole.
Such is the case with this one. The public will not tolerate abuse of animals, and increased regulation at some other level becomes more likely if consumers are presented with continued evidence of industry inability to police itself.
Producers recognize this, and the development of codes of practice now underway is designed to establish standards for animal care and production. Unfortunately, it takes only one idiotic action to reduce confidence in the entire process.
Examples of animal cruelty tend to find a wide audience. Case in point, the Missouri-based Center for Food Integrity, a non-profit group established to build consumer trust in the food system, showed the Mercy for Animals video to a panel of three farm animal care specialists. All of them identified improper euthanasia techniques and “significant welfare issues” at the operations shown.
Egg Farmers of Alberta did not come off particularly well in the W-5 program. Officials refused interviews, thereby missing a vital chance within the same documentary to condemn improper treatment of birds and explain current practice.
In a written statement issued later, the group committed only to “determining the extent of the situation” and promising remediation if necessary. Too little, too late.
Egg Farmers of Canada added to the problem by issuing a nation-wide security alert advising egg farmers to keep their barn doors locked to prevent inquisitive folks from seeing their operations.
This is unproductive when consumers are becoming more interested in the sources of their food. Greater transparency, not less, will be demanded in the future, and producers must prepare to open doors, not close and lock them.
The food animal industry has many knowledgeable defenders. Among them in this case was Dr. Mike Petrik, an Ontario-based veterinarian who specializes in poultry.
Expressing his dissatisfaction with industry response, he explored in his blog the issues of farm size, pitfalls of video compilation, acceptable handling practices and the reasons for layer cages.
It would have been much better for the industry, and consumer confidence, if egg farmer organizations had done the same, and done it first.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.