by SUSAN MANN
An undercover video shot by an animal welfare group depicting alleged cruelty to hens at a southwestern Ontario farm comes as Canada’s national industry finalizes new treatment standards for laying hens.
Mercy for Animals Canadian managing director Krista Hiddema said the video was shot from March 19 to May 9 by one of the group’s volunteers, who obtained a farm labourer job at the Gray Ridge Egg Farms facility in Moorefield. He wore a pinhole-sized camera when doing his job at Gray Ridge, owed by L.H. Gray & Son Limited.
Hiddema noted the management practices used at the farm are legal and standard within the industry. The organization is not filing a legal complaint.
Alison Cross, director of marketing and communications for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals confirmed the society hadn’t received a complaint.
Instead, Hiddema said the video demonstrates why the National Farm Animal Care Council needs to update its code of practice and ban the use of cages for layer hens. “If NFACC fails to do this, we believe the government should cut all of the taxpayer funding (it gives to NFACC),” she said.
The council facilitates animal care code updates.
She said at the Gray Ridge farm, the volunteer saw “literally thousands of hens crammed inside cages that were so small they couldn’t really walk, spread their wings or lie down comfortably. Birds were seen trapped in cage wire, and under feed troughs. They were trampled by their cage mates and were unable to reach food and water.”
She said the volunteer saw dead birds still in cages and birds with major injuries, such as swollen eyes.
Hiddema said a recent poll conducted by NRG Research Group shows an overwhelming majority of Canada’s surveyed “said it is not acceptable to keep egg laying hens in cages. Nearly every major Canadian food company, including Tim Hortons, McDonald’s, Loblaws, Metro, Sobeys and Costco, have all pledged to switch to cage free eggs” on or before 2025.
Jackie Wepruk, farm animal care council general manager and project coordinator, said an update is well underway. The update does not make cage free eggs mandatory.
In devising the layer code, the code’s development committee’s entire focus and obligation has been on the welfare of hens regardless of which housing system is used, Wepruk explained.
“Cage-free, in and of itself, provides no assurances with respect to the welfare of the birds in those systems,” she said. “What’s critical in this code is there are parameters set out relative to what does cage free” mean to each farmer making decisions on how to house their birds and ensure their welfare.
“A sound bite like ‘cage-free’ is easy to put out, but what’s really important is – what is happening with the birds regardless of the system that they’re being housed in?”
Among the 19-member committee steering the layer hen update are Ian J. Duncan, University of Guelph chair in animal welfare, and Penny Lawlis, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs humane standards officer.
“The draft code is a very robust, detailed document,” Wepruk said.
The Farm Animal Care Council is currently seeking public feedback on the draft Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Poultry - Layers. The deadline for comments is Aug. 29.
As of last week, more than 500 submissions have been received, said Wepruk.
Mike Walsh, Gray Ridge Farms executive vice-president, said in a written statement sent by email he’s disappointed by the practices depicted in the Mercy for Animals video and “can say with certainty that what is shown is inconsistent with our high standards for animal care.”
All Gray Ridge employees are trained to provide good care for hens as part of the company’s animal care policy. The company’s “track record through external animal care audits is strong,” he added.
Walsh said Gray Ridge is reviewing its practices “and will take whatever actions are necessary to swiftly and thoroughly address any situation that does not uphold our codes and policies.”
Harry Pelissero, general manager of Egg Farmers of Ontario said on Thursday that the commodity organization has asked the Canadian branch of the Centre for Food Integrity to verify the authenticity of an undercover video shot by an animal welfare group depicting alleged cruelty to hens at a southwestern Ontario egg farm.
Egg Farmers has also asked the centre to determine if the practices seen in the video are considered to be normal for the egg industry, he said.
The Canadian branch of the centre is a division of Farm & Food Care Canada. It works to build public trust and confidence in today’s food system in Canada.
Pelissero said the centre is to establish a three-member panel to review the video.
“It’s not above the activists to stage things or reuse video from other sources,” he said.
As for whether the video will damage Ontario consumer confidence in the egg industry, Pelissero said he didn’t think it would.
It’s the first time the group shot an undercover video at an Ontario egg facility, Hiddema said. During the past 17 years, the group has conducted 50 investigations into farming practices, including 10 in Canada.
Mercy for Animals has operations in Canada, the United States, Brazil, Mexico, China and India and works to prevent cruelty to farm animals, Hiddema explained. Its head office is in Los Angeles, California and the organization has been around for 17 years. It has been operational in Canada for about four years. BF