Cruelty in B.C. dairy may spark reassessment of regulations

It is a black eye indeed for the dairy industry — a black deeper than the spots on the Holsteins that eight people collaborated in abusing on a British Columbia dairy farm.

Disbelief and revulsion were the primary emotions expressed by all who saw the Mercy for Animals Canada video released last week showing employees at Canada’s largest dairy, Chilliwack Cattle Sales, striking animals with chains and rakes, mechanically hoisting them by their necks and irritating cows’ wounds that were incurred in unknown ways.

It is hard to fathom what motivated these people to treat cattle in such ways. Anyone who has handled cattle for any length of time knows that bovine behaviour can be frustrating, but there are no excuses for the abuse visited upon the dairy cattle as shown in the video.

The actions of the night shift at one dairy do not depict typical activity at Canadian dairies. Dairy farmers have said that. Industry leaders have said that. We believe it is true.

Yet the video, a compilation of incidents recorded in May, cannot help but raise doubts about what occurs on farms that is unseen — doubts not in dairy producers’ minds, but in the minds of consumers.

Mercy for Animals says its video shows the industry is incapable of policing itself. What it really showed was that one dairy was incapable of policing itself, but that point won’t hold water in the pool of public opinion.

Every undercover animal cruelty video released in North America gives weight to the idea that farms need more regulation, more inspection, more monitoring — all of which will make it more difficult and expensive to pursue any form of animal agriculture.

It’s somewhat ironic that the dairy industry in particular has had one of its members exposed for animal abuse. It was the first to adopt a national code of practice that itemizes requirements and best practices for the care and handling of cattle.

It is also the first to pilot an assessment process, expected to be launched next year, which will be designed to ensure and prove compliance with the code and assess penalties if necessary.

The dairy industry appeared to be doing everything right — until last week. Now it might want to step up the pace of its assessment project, and other livestock sectors will also have to think about code compliance assurance methods.

The other thrust that receives extra push from animal cruelty incidents is attaching the various livestock code of practice requirements to provincial legislation. Some provinces have already done so.

That likely doesn’t improve compliance, which is already high, given that producers participated in building the codes. However, it might make abuse cases easier to prove.

Every publicized incident of animal abuse gives a black eye to the entire agricultural industry, through loss of credibility, loss of public confidence and potentially greater regulation and expense.

There’s only one way to manage this: prevent animal abuse from occurring at any stage of animal agriculture production, seen or unseen, whether made public or done behind closed doors.

The flaw in that simple statement is lack of agreement on how animals should best be treated, and that may never be remedied.

However, producers do know, as the general public knows, that the repulsive behaviour of those employees at Chilliwack Cattle Sales cannot be justified or condoned. It is, quite simply, wrong.

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