Industry image | With critics keeping a watchful eye, producers must pay attention to high welfare standards
RED DEER — Canadian agriculture is facing increasing pressure from animal rights activist groups that are well funded and prepared to go public with their protests.
However, activists are not going to change their minds about animal care, and no changes will ever be enough, said Geraldine Auston of the Ag and Food Exchange in Guelph, Ont.
“Insist on the highest degree of welfare on your farms,” she told the Egg Farmers of Alberta annual meeting in Red Deer Feb. 25.
Corrective actions are needed when animals are mistreated or producers violate codes of practice, she added.
“We have a long way to go to make sure we are sound in our practices,” said Ben Waldner, chair of the egg farmers organization.
Last year, an Alberta egg farm was exposed for mistreating birds in an undercover video that ended up on the national news program W5.
Undercover videos are just one of the ways animal rights groups target farms, said Kay Johnson Smith, president of the Animal Agriculture Alliance in the United States. Their aim is to end animal agriculture and promote a vegan lifestyle, she added.
Founded in 1987, the alliance includes farmers, ranchers, producer organizations, suppliers, packer-processors, scientists, veterinarians and retailers who want a co-ordinated approach to monitoring the animal rights movement.
The public is not always sure what all the animal welfare groups do or what their mandates are, said Tara Johnson of the Alberta SPCA.
In Alberta, the SPCA enforces the Animal Protection Act and it is not an activist group.
“We are not all created equal,” she said.
Many groups have a core of dedicated volunteers who believe animals are mistreated and want to help.
“They think they are doing the right thing, but sometimes it is very damaging,” said Auston.
Many groups have targeted the use of battery cages for laying hens and gestation stalls for sows. They oppose branding, the fur trade, fois gras production and confinement of animals.
She said groups such as the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) have done good work saving animals in developing countries, but their focus is different in North America.
WSPA has a $5.6 million budget and is willing to work with other groups to promote an ideology. MacLean’s magazine listed it as number seven among the top 10 lobbyists in Ottawa.
A motion passed last year at the Calgary Co-op annual meeting asked the company not to buy eggs from farms using battery cages. The pressure continues on the retailer, and WSPA has become involved, said Auston.
Other groups are moving into Canada with plenty of money and a mission.
Mercy for Animals arrived in Canada two years ago and is responsible for undercover videos from hog and chicken facilities.
There are 500 known animal rights groups in the United States, said Johnson Smith, and they hold two major conferences a year.
“These (animal welfare) issues are not something the animal rights movement ever want to solve because if they solve these issues, if they worked with us and industry to improve animal care, they would have nothing to fundraise on,” she said.
Auston said these organizations have total revenues of $400 million a year with the Humane Society of the United States being the largest with 400 employees and an annual budget of $120 million. She said it spends one percent of that money on animal care, while $25 million is spent on lobbying and legislative campaigns and $20 million on fundraising.
“They have a big shop. It is a big industry. They have a big budget dedicated to ending your livelihood,” she said.
Activists who once worked with groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Liberation Front have become HSUS leaders.
As an example of its reach, HSUS and United Egg Producers reached an agreement that would see farmers accept national legislation to end the use of battery cages. HSUS said it would no longer push state initiatives.
However, the rule did not make it to the farm bill, so HSUS said it would continue to push for cage free egg production with state bills and ballot initiatives.
Another tactic is to buy public stock in corporations to give these groups the right to speak at shareholder meetings and present resolutions to set policy for suppliers.
Auston said undercover videos are a common tactic.
Activists started by breaking into farms to take pictures, but that did not work well. Now they take jobs at a livestock operations and shoot secret footage.
About 70 videos have been made public, including 40 in the last five years. Two were shot in Canada.
The Animal Agriculture Alliance tracks the videos to see where they were made and how they were edited.
“These videos are priceless because they can live on and on into eternity, especially with social media. These videos never go away,” she said.
Every video is posted online with a “donate now” button flashing, she added.
Auston said many food companies caved in when the videos started to surface and agreed to change specifications from suppliers rather than face bad publicity.
Johnson Smith said farmers can take action and need to be aware that they might be targets for an activist:
- Train all employees on animal handling, and develop an animal care program.
- Employees need to sign a document on farm policy and should be encouraged to report poor care.
- Employees need to be held accountable for their behaviour when working with livestock.
- Keep the farm neat and clean.
- Employers should make sure animals are healthy and know how they are handled.
- Employers should know if there are environmental problems such as improper storage of manure or chemicals.
- Employers should know who they are hiring. They should check references and think twice about hiring if the person’s identification is questionable, such having only a university ID.
- If the vehicle is from out of state or another province, ask why.
- Employers should ask themselves if the job applicant is overly qualified for the job.
- Employers should keep track of employees. When they leave, try to find out where they went.
- If the farm has a website, talk about the family and the approaches it takes to environmental care and animal welfare.