by Emma Gregory
In 2005, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that if the outbreak of Avian influenza (H5N1) that began spreading from poultry to humans in late 2003 were to instigate a pandemic, a worst-case scenario would see 260 million people die.
Instead, only 257 fatalities were confirmed, due to the H5N1 virus’s low rate of human-to-human transmission, as it spread to 61 countries ultimately leading to the deaths of 250 million chickens.
While profitable animal agriculture operates with the expectation that a percentage of animal herds won’t make it to market, 250 million was considered by industry and government leaders to be unacceptable. It was determined that for animal agriculture to stay profitable, farm animal health and disease surveillance would need to be standardized and in-line with the guidelines set out by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), based in France. The OIE functions globally, in partnership with the World Trade Organization, to monitor and prevent contagious diseases in farm animals and to protect international trade.
Meanwhile, there was also the issue of providing assurances to the public about food safety, as well as a growing interest in farm animal welfare.
In 2005, animal commodity associations, including Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Cattlemen’s Association, launched the NFACC.
The primary function of the NFACC is the development of codes of practice for how farm animals should be treated. Members from provincial SPCAs and humane societies took part in code development to provide input on animal welfare.
Standardizing rules for animal welfare demonstrated to the OIE that Canada was taking animal health seriously. It was also a means of communicating to the public that the commercial farm industry was on top of animal welfare concerns.
NFACC is funded by the federal Agriculture and Agri-Food department. Necessary infrastructure to support welfare improvements made on farms is also subsidized by the Canadian government.
The BC SPCA – which receives most of its funding through private donations – is responsible for enforcing animal welfare laws in the province. The Canada Revenue Agency reports the BC SPCA received just over $30 million in donations and six million in government funding last year. The society spent $3,873,000 on cruelty investigations in 2020, mostly concerning companion animals.
Not everyone concerned with animal well-being supports public funding for improved welfare on farms.
Darlene Levecque, with the grassroots lobby group Nation Rising, wants to see an end to all subsidies for animal agriculture. She criticized commercially farming animals as inherently abusive, and said the onus is on the government “to help farmers shift to plant-based agriculture,” whether that include growing crops or developing Canada’s processing sector.
Amy Sorrano, of the activist group Meat the Victims, spoke of her group’s efforts to assist the BC SPCA – sharing hours of unauthorized video of apparent animal-welfare code violations, obtained via trespassing – only to have its members subsequently charged with break-and-enter and mischief.
Sorrano said the BC SPCA, as a private charity, lacks the accountability mechanisms of a taxpayer-funded government agency, and is calling for the province to replace the BC SPCA with an agency that is accountable to the public.
When BC SPCA CEO Craig Daniell wrote the Ministry of Agriculture last November reporting the effects of criticism from animal-rights activists, he also expressed skepticism that farm-industry associations are implementing the welfare standards set out by NFACC.
John Jamieson, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, was surprised to learn of the BC SPCA’s doubt that welfare laws are being followed on B.C. farms.
Asked about animal abuse in farming – and whether reported instances were one-offs or characteristic of the industry – Jamieson replied: “I think its somewhere in between. I’m not sure… We would hope that they’re one-offs. I certainly don’t think it’s indicative of the sector, but I do think there are people out there working on farms who may not have been trained properly.”
Jamieson cautions against taking the word of activists who report animal abuse, noting the CCFI subscribes to a service that monitors the activist community.
“I see some of the stuff that animal activists present, and some of that, there’s a little bit of bias on all sides,” he said.
Calling his organization an “unbiased third party” representing the concerns of both plant and agriculture businesses, Jamieson said the CCFI researches public opinion on issues related to agriculture and “helps our food system ensure it is doing the right thing to build trust by providing research…
“We know from our research that most Canadians are comfortable consuming meat, eggs and milk as long as they are comfortable and confident that the animals have been treated humanely. That’s an important piece of information for the sector,” he said.
“And the best way to do that is to have your [NFACC] codes of practice updated regularly.”
Daniell’s letter to the ministry suggests that the best way to assure transparency and accountability to British Columbians that farm animals are being well cared for is to implement third-party audits of all B.C. farms.
Asked about the apparent bias of animal-rights documentation of farm animal neglect and abuse, BC SPCA chief prevention and enforcement officer Marcie Moriarty replied: “I think that should be triggering for government and industry to re-examine and look at what areas of accountability and transparency need to be improved here.”
According to the Ministry of Agriculture communications department, its “representatives have met with the BC SPCA to discuss concerns expressed in their letter and those conversations are continuing.”
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