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Law still treats animals badly

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The Animal Care Amendment Act, proclaimed by the Selinger government on Monday, provides positive changes for companion animals but fails to address the most prominent farm animal welfare issues.

Ninety-five per cent of Manitoba's farm animals suffer terribly on farms, living lives of intense confinement in battery cages (egg-laying hens) and in barren, metal and concrete pens barely larger than themselves (female and male breeding pigs) where they are unable to turn around or even fully stretch their limbs. Conditions aren't much better for broiler chickens, turkeys and market-weight pigs that live in crowded sheds, often in the dark, never to feel the grass beneath their feet or the sun on their back.

Such abysmal conditions for farm animals are not the norm in all parts of the developed world. In seven U.S. states, intensive-confinement systems are being phased out or have been banned. In Europe, intensive-confinement systems of battery cages and sow stalls will be banned in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

I recently visited several farms in the Netherlands where stringent on-farm regulations exist. Sows must be housed in groups and are not permitted to be confined, and pigs must be provided with straw. The regulations even require toys for pigs, which must be changed frequently to prevent boredom. Unannounced inspections by officials ensure compliance and there are stiff penalties for those who do not meet the minimum standard required by law. The farmers spoken to said they were once again "proud to be farmers." To complement the higher standards, the Netherlands also requires products be labelled to reflect the animals' rearing and housing conditions so consumers caring about animal welfare can support higher standard systems. For example, all eggs are stamped with a number that indicates whether the hen that laid it was organic (access to an outdoor area and organic feed), free-range (access to an outdoor area), free-run (loosely housed indoors but with no access to outdoors) or caged.

In Manitoba, the Animal Care Amendment Act, like the Animal Care Act passed 14 years prior, does not address the welfare of animals while on-farm. It exempts intense confinement as well as standard practices such as castration without anesthetic, PACing (pounding against concrete -- an industry term describing the method most commonly used to "euthanize" piglets) and tooth-breaking, to name a few.

Along with this lack of on-farm regulations, few labelling laws exist in Canada. This allows opportunistic corporations to capitalize on the public's desire to support better living conditions for farm animals. Because of this, claims such as "natural" and "humane" are meaningless and do not reflect improved living conditions for the animals.

Although the new act disregards the welfare of animals on-farm, it does address conditions for farm animals at provincial livestock auctions and collecting stations (where culled breeding sows and boars are brought to be reassembled, loaded onto trailers and transported to the U.S. for slaughter). The regulations indicate that non-ambulatory or suffering animals must be euthanized. However, with the government failing to hire inspectors or veterinarians to be present at these facilities (as is being done in Ontario), it remains up to industry to police itself.

While the Animal Care Amendment Act is inadequate in addressing key farm animal welfare concerns, the passing of Bill 7 -- The Food Safety and Related Amendments Act -- could have an additional negative impact on the welfare of farm animals.

Farm animal welfare advocates and small-scale, mixed farmers fear the bill will be used to further entrench confinement of the animals under the guise of bio-security and disease prevention.

A similar situation occurred in Quebec in 2005 when the government passed regulations (also under the guise of bio-security and disease prevention -- H5N1/avian influenza in this case) prohibiting chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese access to outdoors. The flawed reasoning was predicated on the idea that contact with wild fowl increases the risk for domestic fowl to contract H5N1, but this theory has proven unsound. It is not the small, mixed farms with their genetically diverse, dispersed, low-density poultry on pasture that are at risk. Birds kept in intensive conditions are nearly genetically identical birds, immune-compromised and living in intensely crowded conditions, making them vulnerable to diseases like H5N1 to spread and mutate rapidly.

Also, while industry and government would like us to believe the barns are bio-secure and somehow hermetically sealed, our inspectors have found they are anything but. Rats, pigeons and flies are commonplace. One insurance inspector quoted in the Manitoba Cooperator in 2008 said when he conducts inspections of Manitoba's intensive pig operations he inevitably discovers "a crowd of electrocuted rats behind an electric panel" and declared: "We see four of five of these a week."

In Ontario, however, similar legislation was amended in 1999 through the legal challenge of one turkey producer who would have lost his organic status had the regulations passed.

In the end, then-minister of agriculture Leona Dombrowsky allowed certified organic turkey producers to keep their birds outside.

The ineffectiveness and potential harmfulness of the aforementioned pieces of legislation underscores the pressing need to address the growing concern of Manitobans for more humane conditions for farm animals.

Twyla Francois is head of investigations with Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Food Animals (CETFA).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2010 A12

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