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Whole Foods Market raises the bar for animal welfare standardsWith 300 outlets expected in North America and the U.K. by 2010, the world's largest organic supermarket chain is having an impact on animal welfare and organic certification. Farmers and industry organizations are responding
by TREENA HEINAnimal welfare represents yet another worry heaped on the shoulders of Ontario farmers, adding to such recent headaches as BSE, low crop prices and government regulations. Public concern over the living conditions, transportation and slaughter of farm animals seems to increase every day.
No one would argue that people don't have a right to know the conditions under which livestock is raised. However, the questions about which farming practices should change and who should dictate the changes are far from settled.
Everyone in the business knows that that animals cared for properly are more productive and more profitable. Furthermore, as a general rule, livestock farmers enjoy and take a great interest in tending their animals.
"Nevertheless," as the Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC) points out on its "Farm Issues" Web site, "agriculture and food production are not exempt from laws and regulations governing animal treatment. Ontario farmers are subject to laws outlined in the Criminal Code of Canada, as well as the provincial Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Provisions included in these pieces of legislation protect animals from 'unnecessary pain, injury, suffering or neglect.'"
Beyond the laws that govern treatment of animals, Recommended Codes of Practice exist for all types of livestock rearing. However, this isn't enough for Whole Foods Market (WFM), the world's largest supermarket chain of natural and organic foods. Founded in Austin, Texas, in 1980, the company now boasts 166 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom and plans to increase to 300 outlets by 2010. Canada has three. Vancouver and Toronto have had one store each since 2002 and a third one opened in Oakville in June. WFM is in the process of creating more detailed animal welfare guidelines that its producers must respect -- guidelines that they would like to see all farmers eventually adhere to.
While WFM will give interviews to general interest magazines, it will not grant them to farming publications, referring reporters to its Web site. There it claims it currently does "more for animal welfare than any retailer in the industry and we currently require our producers to adhere to strict standards. However, our intentions are to step into a leadership role to raise these standards even higher."
This raising of the bar began in late 2003 and is to be completed by 2008 for every species sold by the company, a joint effort of WFM, scientists and advocacy groups such as the U.S. Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). These new practices, says WFM, "will give shoppers peace of mind in knowing they can find the highest-quality meat products that adhere to [our] strict standards and values, which include raising farm animals with compassion."
Presently, WFM says, its meat is raised and processed in less stressful environments than is typical in the conventional meat industry. "Animals are fed a diet free of all animal byproducts and are raised without added hormones and antibiotics. We also require our producers to pass a strict animal welfare audit annually. Meat that adheres to these standards will be clearly marked with an Animal Compassion logo."
Additionally, in January, the company began allocating five percent of total sales towards their Animal Compassion Foundation, an independent, non-profit organization, which "will provide education and research services to assist and inspire ranchers and meat producers around the world to achieve a higher standard of animal welfare excellence while still maintaining economic viability."
John Mackey, CEO and co-founder of WFM, says that by creating the foundation, his company "is pioneering an entirely new way for people to relate to farm animals -- with the animals' welfare becoming the most important goal." WFM believes it now "has the size and scope to make a real impact on the welfare of animals both on the farms and in the meat production system."
Prof. Ian Duncan of the University of Guelph's Department of Animal and Poultry Science serves on the Animal Welfare Advisory Council of WFM. He says that "the standards being set by Whole Foods are extremely high. The idea is to have the highest possible welfare standards compatible with the farmer being able to make a profit."
He notes that WFM standards are therefore higher than those set by fast food companies. "They are aiming to sell the public fast food as cheaply as possible. Whole Foods is aiming to sell to the upper end of the market." Duncan believes grocery store chains like WFM have to "be able to say that their products are produced ethically...It is essential that they take part in setting animal welfare standards for the products on their shelves."
WFM isn't the only organization basing their marketing on treatment of animals. While nothing comparable yet exists in Ontario, both the BC SPCA and the Winnipeg Humane Society now have marketing certification programs in place for meat and eggs which meet their standards for livestock welfare. Farmers who want the BC "SPCA Certified" label pay a fee for a third-party inspection service and must agree to possible future inspections. As of this summer, two beef, one dairy, four egg and two broiler producers had signed up and seven more applications were being processed.
Lisa Bishop, communications manager for Chicken Farmers of Canada, says the broiler chicken animal care program is in development and it hasn't been decided whether it will "be voluntary or mandatory. We're not trying to catch anybody hurting anyone (chickens). It allows our farmers to demonstrate that they meet the highest levels of animal care."
Mackay notes that in the United Kingdom a push from the grocery sector, trying to capitalize on a marketing opportunity, meant that "farmers jumped through a lot of hoops." In the end, "customers wouldn't pay premium prices and so the stores imported cheaper products." Something similar could happen in Canada, she warns.
In the United States, she observes, "various fast food restaurant chains were getting pushed around and against each other" in their regulatory efforts to please PETA and win over public opinion. The chains realized it would be a never-ending game and subsequently created a collective set of national restaurant standards. However, so far only Burger King and McDonald's in the United States have standards on a par with Canadian voluntary codes of practice for livestock and poultry farming.
OFAC has several initiatives underway to address animal welfare concerns. Starting in fall 2004, it began holding tours so that members of the media could come and view different farming operations. About 15 writers attended each of the southern Ontario tours of fall 2004 and spring 2005; another tour was held in September 2004 near Ottawa.
In addition, OFAC's Ontario Humane Transport Working Group recently began offering help for those who need to transport livestock in an emergency, including the Ontario Provincial Police and the Ontario SPCA. It has created small cards with contact information for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's Livestock Emergency Transport Line and illustrations of humane euthanasia methods for many farm species. Window stickers are also available for livestock transporters, as are more detailed booklets and binders.
Since 1992, OFAC has offered a phone help line for suspected cases of farm animal abuse or neglect. OFAC investigates each call and, if there is a need, asks a respected and knowledgeable peer to offer advice to the farmer. Of 12 cases in 2004, five were deemed to be invalid complaints, three were referred to the SPCA, two are being monitored with SPCA involvement and two were completely resolved.
On the national level, a new National Farm Animal Care Council is being formed. OFAC and other provincial organizations will most likely have seats. A preliminary meeting was held in August to discuss organizational objectives.
Since WFM arrived in Canada, du Breton a large vertically integrated producer based in Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec. has supplied it with pork raised under different conditions, but president Vincent Breton is unsure about the labelling used at the store level. The product, shipped strictly to U.S. grocery chains so far and produced in Quebec, is certified by a U.S. company called "Certified Humane," which also deals with chicken and beef. The pigs have more room than non-certified animals, receive no antibiotics and their manure is composted, "but transport and slaughter are the same," says Breton. About five Ontario pork farms have just become involved with the program, in a deal mediated by Ontario Pork, and will receive a bonus of $15-$20 a head, depending on what changes they are making on the farm.
Craig Hunter, vice president of Burnbrae Farms, Brockville, one of Canada's largest egg producers vice-president of operations, says of the free-run egg market, "It's not expanding across North America. B.C.'s market is significant, but it's a very small market in the rest of Canada."
Instead of living in cages, free-run hens are able to move about the building. They also have extra room, enjoying at least one square foot (144 square inches) per bird (although it can be as high as 1.5, depending on the number of birds in a barn). This compares to regular caged hens living in 67 square inches each, as specified under federal law in 2003. (American chicken farmers will be required to provide similar accommodation for their birds in the next few years.) However, says Hunter, whether you give chickens more space or not, "they tend to like to be close together. You give chickens 1,000 square feet and they won't use it. They will go together to one corner."
While animal welfare critics would applaud the banning of all caged laying birds, they are careful with their praise. Geoff Urton, the farm animal welfare co-ordinator for B.C.'s SPCA, says, "You have people labelling their eggs as free-run or free-range, which suggests, but doesn't necessarily mean, good animal welfare. The same thing can be said for, say, organically raised beef."
Urton notes that these labels give consumers a false perception of the complete treatment of an animal from birth to death. Labels for such things as organic have nothing to do with, for example, treatment of animals en route to and inside the slaughterhouse. Urton would like to see a much greater depth of understanding in the general public as to what various labels mean and more regulation of labelling, something the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has begun to address.
Additionally, people like Urton would like to see more regulations passed that address how farm animals are kept in Canada. He is pleased that Recommended Codes of Practice exist, but he stresses that "if a farmer is adhering to [them], he is doing a good job of farm management, but it wouldn't necessarily mean he's doing a good job of animal welfare."
Turning these Codes of Practice into laws "would hopefully get rid of the negligent practices," adds Urton, but would still not address many animal welfare issues. The BC SPCA has created posted charts on their Web site, which compare practices acceptable to them with the Codes. He applauds the commodities presently creating animal welfare guidelines, but points out that they are of little impact if not mandatory.BF
Animal welfare: the last 24 hours are the most stressfulGuelph's Prof. Ian Duncan names the most important welfare issue today as "catching, transportation, pre-slaughter management and slaughter." His view is that "of all the things we do to our agricultural animals, what we do to them in the 24 hours before they are slaughtered, reduces their welfare the most. During this period, animals are mixed socially, exposed to strange stimuli, rounded up or actually caught and placed in a transport truck.
"While on the truck, they are deprived of food and water, can be exposed to extremes of weather, generally do not have sufficient room to adopt a good resting position, often exposed to exhaust fumes, subjected to accelerating and braking forces, etc. At the slaughterhouse, they are exposed to strange noises and smells, more social mixing and rough handling. Then the slaughtering process itself is not always humane."
He lists elective surgeries as the next most important issue, usually without any anaesthetic or analgesic cover. "For example, piglets are subjected to teeth clopping, castration and tail-docking, calves are de-horned and castrated. Turkey poults are de-snooded, beak trimmed, de-toed and vaccinated. Then, with beef cattle we castrate, de-horn and brand them. I think we should be looking for alternatives to all these procedures. There is no doubt that they cause acute pain; some of them may cause chronic pain."
Duncan says there are also certain intensive husbandry procedures that should be banned. These include dry sow stalls and white veal with calves being kept in crates "without bedding (because they would ingest it). Calves can be kept in social groups with bedding and with some roughage so that normal rumen development can take place." He also believes conventional battery cages for laying hens should be phased out because hens don't find cages suitable for nesting.
Researcher and livestock facility designer Temple Grandin is also a world-recognized expert on animal welfare issues. Currently an assistant professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, she divides animal welfare issues into the categories of "Abuse and Neglect" and "Boredom and Restrictive Environments." Abuse and neglect is fairly clear-cut, but can include overcrowding of pigs or chickens and genetic over-selection for rapid growth.
The issues in the boredom and restriction category do not involve pain, but manifest themselves, says Grandin, in "abnormal behaviours which may occur in barren environments that do not provide adequate stimulation," such as dry sow stalls, crates for veal and laying cages.BF
The environmentalists take on Kentucky Fried ChickenBoth Professors Ian Duncan and Temple Grandin removed themselves from an "independent" welfare council for Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) this spring. Duncan was unwilling to sign an agreement curtailing media access and claimed KFC has made no progress in the last three years in requiring suppliers to improve the welfare of the birds.
Pamela Anderson, spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), called for a boycott of KFC in April, claiming that the fast-food chain scalds its chickens alive, de-feathers them while they are still conscious and cuts off their beaks at birth. (While restaurants like KFC own their own processing plants and farms in the United States, here in Canada processors are independent and negotiate contracts to sell the same chicken to grocery stores and restaurants alike.)
While no beak trimming occurs in Canadian meat birds, layers are trimmed and vaccinated at birth, according to Ian Duncan. Robin Horel, spokesperson for the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors, says chickens are stunned in a water bath with electric current, bled and then, once dead, are scalded and de-feathered. He says that, while "there is very little chance of a chicken somehow missing electrocution and having its throat slit," it is theoretically possible. Duncan would like to see the water bath stunning replaced with expensive systems that first put the birds to sleep.
PETA is also concerned about crowding and climate control in the barns and chickens having to walk around in their feces. Unlike most chickens used for egg production, broiler chickens are not kept in cages but roam around large barns, similar to free-run layers. Lisa Bishop of Chicken Farmers of Canada says of meat birds that, while "we do suffer heat loss, by and large the temperatures are kept so that the birds stay healthy. Production numbers don't go down in the summer."
Bishop adds that "chickens have unrestricted access to food and water. No hormones or steroids are fed, and antibiotics are strictly controlled. Bruised animals won't be paid for." Chicken Farmers of Canada already has a food safety program in place that addresses some animal welfare concerns such as disinfection and barn temperature.
On April 21, 2005, a coalition of animal welfare groups, including author Farley Mowat, environmentalist David Suzuki and PETA, filed a complaint with the Competition Bureau (a Canadian government agency charged with ensuring fair competition among businesses), which accused KFC Canada of misleading the public about its animal welfare policies.
The activists claim that, through statements in news releases and on its Web site, "KFC Canada has attempted to gain an unfair advantage in the Canadian marketplace by deceiving consumers about its nonexistent animal welfare program." Among other points, they dispute KFC Canada's claim that it "has a strict zero-tolerance policy to ensure the ethical treatment of animals. Any suppliers that violate this policy will be immediately terminated."
Steve Langford, KFC Canada's General Manager of Purchasing, says that while his company conducts an average of two surprise inspections a year at each of its supplier processing plants, it does not visit chicken farms. "If we are made aware of any possible animal abuses," says Langford, "we will put the processor on suspension immediately and then investigate," which could then result in termination. BF
Eastern Ontario egg producer goes free rangeJohn Beking is happy with the changeover to free-range-style barns and he believes his birds are, too
by DIANNE FETTERLYAn Eastern Ontario egg producer has responded to consumers' demands for a more "naturally produced" agricultural product by converting his 16,500-bird farm to a totally free-range operation.
John Beking of Beking's Poultry Farm, located just outside of Oxford Station, has been producing eggs in a conventional barn (with caged birds) for more than 30 years. This past spring, Beking moved his layers into two new 200-by 40-foot, free-range-style barns and, from what he's seen so far, he couldn't be happier with his decision.
"For the past 35 years, we have used cages," says Beking from the egg grading room of his operation, "and so far, I like this (free-range) system better. We're seeing good production and I like to think the birds are happier."
Beking cites "more space for the birds" as his main reason for preferring free-range over the cage system. This is despite the fact that the new system had a slightly higher initial investment of about $32 to $35 per bird for the nests, compared to $22 per bird for the cage system. As well, the free-range barns are not quite as space-efficient as the old system. With the cages, Beking's old barns had capacity for 18,000 birds as opposed to the 16,500 birds (11,000 white layers in one barn and 5,500 brown birds in the other) housed in the new free-range barns.
However, the manure removal system was one area where Beking found a definite cost saving. There was no need to install an expensive manure cleaning system in the new free-range barns since the feeders and watering systems can be raised, so the manure can be simply cleared away with a skid steer loader.
According to Beking, free-range production and bird mortality rates are believed to be comparable with cage systems. However, each method does have its benefits and disadvantages. Birds housed in cages often have more problems with weak bone structure, while free-range chickens can be more susceptible to intestinal infections because the birds have access to their own feces, he explains. With only 26 dead birds to date, Beking says that so far he is very pleased with the "very low mortality rate" in his new barns.
Last fall, Beking demolished the old barns, which housed the 18,000 caged birds, and completed construction of the sleek, new free-range barns in March of this year. The birds were moved into the new barns on April 1 and Beking says the only initial problem encountered in the changeover was getting the chickens to lay their eggs in the nests.
The temperature of the barns is monitored by computerized controls with optimum temperature around 22 degrees Celsius. Automated systems also track the number of birds in the barns and monitor feed and water intake daily.
The nests are sloped so the eggs roll away onto a conveyor belt, which carries them to the egg grading room, housed in another building. There, the 15,000-16,000 eggs produced daily are washed, candled and weighed using an in-line grading system. They are then sorted into sizes and placed in cold storage to be delivered to area stores, restaurants, nursing homes and hospitals across Eastern Ontario.BF