Canadians have witnessed extensive media coverage over the last two years about undercover work by Mercy for Animals Canada, which has exposed animal abuse in pork, egg, turkey, chicken, veal and dairy operations.
The most recent case, at a dairy farm in British Columbia, resulted in the B.C. SPCA recommending animal cruelty charges against farm employees.
In all these cases, farm operators and industry representatives have been quick to deny any management knowledge of cruel practices and to characterize the exposed wrongdoing as isolated incidents.
However, the ease with which the undercover investigators have been able to find and reveal the abuse suggests that animal cruelty in intensive farming is not the rare occurrence that operators claim.
Media coverage of animal cruelty on industrialized farms in the United States has become so commonplace and damaging to the industry that it has lobbied for “ag-gag” laws criminalizing undercover videos of the cruelty.
Skeptical animal advocates and the public could be forgiven for asking why it is necessary to hide what happens on these farms if no cruelty is occurring.
Determining whether animal cruelty is widespread in Canadian livestock operations depends on how one defines cruelty. Few people, including animal groups, believe managers of these operations would encourage acts such as the savage beating of cows that occurred at the B.C. dairy farm. Such deliberate and illegal acts might indeed be rare.
But here is where the question of what is cruel becomes more complex. Much of what shocks the public when they see videos about “factory farming” is not illegal acts of cruelty but standard practices on industrialized farms.
For example, battery cages not only look inhumane, they have been re-peatedly shown in scientific studies to cause laying hens to suffer. However, 95 percent of Canada’s eggs come from battery cage hens.
Similarly, it is a scientific fact that poultry raised for meat experience painful skeletal disorders and lameness because of selective breeding for fast growth. This is not the fault of any individual farmer, yet the industry continues this practice knowing animals will suffer as a result.
What would happen if all consumers were fully informed of the welfare effects of battery cages and the consequences of breeding poultry for fast growth?
What if they could all witness tail docking, castration and dehorning without anaesthetic (all still legal), or observe first-hand the confinement of calves in veal crates and sows in stalls? Would many not conclude that animal cruelty is indeed widespread in Canadian animal agriculture?
If there is nothing morally wrong with these practices, then why are they never mentioned in the marketing of meat and dairy products? Instead, we see only happy cows and chickens in green fields and little red barns on the packaging.
Of course, some ag industry spokes-people like to say that consumers are just “squeamish,” especially urban ones. They’ve lost touch with the land. They’ve got too sentimental about animals because they have pets.
No, what consumers are not in touch with are the cruel realities of modern, industrialized livestock production, which no one in the industry has been keen to tell them about for the last 50 years. And when someone tries to tell them, they’re called animal rights extremists.
Are Canadian farmers cruel? No, but they’re caught up in a cruel system that has destroyed traditional husbandry and the values that went with it.
Would the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of today’s livestock farmers be proud of the way animals are raised in 2014?
Some consumers have decided to buy outside this system, turning to non-intensive, traditional producers. Others have turned against animal agriculture altogether as the quality, selection and convenience of vegetarian and vegan food rapidly improves. If one can eat well without cruelty or slaughter, why not?
If livestock farmers want to keep their customers and take the wind out of the sails of their critics, they should be challenging the system themselves and not leaving it to undercover animal rights whistleblowers.