Government hold on poultry code funding a disservice to industry

If you’ve turned on your television or opened a newspaper lately, you’ll likely have seen yet another investigative report about animal welfare in Canada.

These days, it seems the latest slew of undercover footage shot by activists disguised as farm workers features poultry barns.

The most recent incident occurred in a hatchery owned by Maple Leaf Foods, which was accused in mid-April of malpractice while euthanizing chicks.

Don’t get me wrong: there are two sides to every story. Undercover footage is always a slippery stone for any journalist. Context is key and verifying hidden camera video for accuracy can be tricky.

Still, these recent media reports are indicative of a surging trend: people care about how livestock is being treated in this country’s barns.

Animal welfare is a conversation that Canadians continue to have at the dinner table.

More and more, consumers are telling researchers, pollsters and big box restaurants and grocery stores that they need assurances the food on their plate was raised in “humane” and “sustainable” conditions.

That is why the lull in federal funding for the final two updates for the national animal welfare codes for poultry (meat birds and layers) is baffling.

The National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) has been around since 2005 and is responsible for developing animal welfare policy in Canada.

The partnership, which includes industry, government, academia and other stakeholders, has been reviewing and updating eight national animal welfare codes since 2010.

Six of those codes (pork, mink, equine, sheep, beef cattle, and farmed fox) are complete, detailing new mandatory care standards and recommended practices.

Several stakeholder groups have, or are considering, incorporating the modernized codes into their own on-farm industry standards.

The project is funded by Agriculture Canada, and therein lies the problem.

The first grant expired in March, before the poultry code updates were finalized.

The council applied for additional funding several months ago under Growing Forward 2, but those applications are still pending.

The lag in funding means both poultry codes are on hold until further notice, the council told members in its monthly newsletter earlier this month.

Yet, news of alleged malpractice in Canadian barns continues to make headlines, infiltrating living rooms and water cooler chitchats across the country.

Meanwhile, the industry is left pointing to animal welfare codes desperately out of date when confronted with video accusations of abuse and maltreatment of animals. Neither poultry code has been updated since 2003.

Farmers continue to face heightened criticism from consumers severely disconnected from the farm, and the delay in funding now means these codes are an easy target for activists who insist government and agriculture don’t care about Canadian livestock.

Yes, there are disputes about whether the codes are actually effective and enforceable, and debate continues over whether more provinces should reference them in their animal cruelty legislation. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland already do.

Despite this, one thing is clear: Canadians want, and love, to talk about food.

With the gap between the farm and their forks widening by the day, the NFACC codes give industry a voice at the consumer table.

Government stalling on the poultry codes leaves industry in the lurch, while politicians and bureaucrats risk fueling an emotional debate on what is already a sensitive topic.

Government, too, benefits from modern codes. Provincial and federal officials can use the NFACC to educate and converse with consumers about where their food comes from, all the while learning a few lessons in farm operations from those on the ground.

Rational conversation about animal welfare in this country is possible, but only if every player is at the table. Otherwise, the result is a blame game with no winners, only losers.

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