Animal welfare advocates are chastising the federal government for publishing new food safety regulations that fall short of their demands for the care and wellbeing of animals bound for slaughter.
Last week, the federal health and agriculture departments announced new Safe Food for Canadians Regulations on behalf of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) — an unprecedented consolidation of various food production laws for meat and fish inspection, agricultural products, and consumer packaging and labelling, that come into force on Jan. 15, 2019.
While the rules make headway in reducing the health and safety risks for food that ends up on Canadian shelves, Mercy For Animals, an international animal welfare advocacy group, said the changes don't go far enough to protect the 750 million animals killed for food each year in Canada.
"These new regulations don’t go anywhere near what we asked as far as protecting animals from painful and unnecessary processes," said Courtney Dobbin, the organization's special projects manager for Canada. "The Canadian government knew slaughter regulations will condemn millions of Canadian animals to continue to be shocked, shackled and scalded alive.”
Activist recommendations left aside
While the new regulations were under public consultation, Mercy For Animals sent the CFIA an online petition signed by nearly 23,000 supporters, requesting that it replace live-shackle slaughter methods for poultry with a less cruel, controlled atmosphere gassing system; ban the use of electric prods and whips, install cameras in slaughter houses to deter animal abuse; mandate that the production line be stopped if animals are mishandled or still conscious before slaughter; and issue decisive fines and penalties for rule-breakers.
None of these recommendations were enshrined in the new regulations, although the CFIA said it undertook "extensive public consultations" with animal welfare groups that did result in some tangible changes. It has, for example, added new restrictions to the use of electric prods on pigs and cows, increased the clarification on a license holder's legal obligations for the care of sick and injured food animals, and increased employee skill requirements.
"The new Safe Food for Canadians Regulations are designed to hold the licence holder to high standards of animal welfare by more clearly placing responsibility on them for the care and handling of all animals, including those held in crates prior to slaughter, under all situations and conditions in the slaughter establishment," wrote CFIA media relations manager Natasha Gauthier in an emailed statement.
"At the same time, these regulations are intended to allow greater flexibility in meeting these high standards, for example by permitting the licence holder to introduce more technical innovations. These expected outcomes for humane treatment must be clearly demonstrated at all times to the satisfaction of CFIA.”
Margin for error too large: Animal Justice
According to Animal Justice, an Ottawa-based animal law charity, many of the regulations look good on paper, but in practice, are difficult to enforce. They rely too heavily on the discretion of food producers, it argues, thanks to the use of broad language such as "sufficient ventilation" and "sufficient space" for movement in the prevention of animal suffering.
"What’s sufficient space? I don’t know," said Anna Pippus, director of farmed animal advocacy for Animal Justice, in an interview with National Observer. "It would be very easy to give a number-based standard for each species, to say, 'This is what counts for overcrowding' — you know, pounds per square footage type of thing... when terms are vague like that, they just can’t be enforced."
According to the new regulations, license holders must not cause "avoidable suffering, injury or death" to animals under their care, or subject them to any conditions that could result in such suffering, injury or death. The word 'avoidable,' Pippus alleged, is another example of deliberate ambiguity that creates wiggle room for producer error.
"It’s built into the system as a margin of error that’s accepted by law enforcement and considered normal by industry. They don’t get it right all the time and they know it," she said, referring to a handful of graphic hidden camera investigations appearing to show abuse at the hands of Canadian producers. "So we like to see really clear standards for everything.”
While Animal Justice joined Mercy For Animals in calling for an outright ban on electrical prods, Pippus offered some support for the CFIA’s new restrictions on them: the agency now specifies that the rods must only be used for the purpose of forcing an animal to move, provided it has sufficient space to move, there is no reasonable alternative, it is applied to the rear leg muscles, and it does not cause avoidable suffering, injury or death.
All of the regulations should be clarified with such detail, said Pippus, especially when it comes to the prevention of animal suffering.
CFIA recognizes suffering is inherent
In response to criticisms from animal welfare advocates, the CFIA said it has reasons for laying the legislation out the way it does. The term “avoidable suffering,” for example, is used because the concept “recognizes that there is an inherent degree of potential distress to the animal during “the slaughter process and that some activities are unavoidable.”
The agency does not mandate the use of cameras, it added, because “they do not replace close-up visual observations of the animals from different angles on the slaughter line,” and monitoring activities for animals often involve hands-on physical techniques.
The CFIA said its rules are based on “best practices,” but Mercy For Animals pointed out that cameras in slaughterhouses were recently mandated throughout the United Kingdom.
"We only asked for them to match that," said Dobbin. "Again, something that is doable, they just refused."
Other improvements to animal welfare cited by the CFIA in emailed comments include each the implementation of ‘Preventative Control Plans’ that effectively mitigate animal welfare risks at license holder establishments, and have been pre-approved by the agency. Gauthier said license holders are responsible for following the regulations and preventing violations, and the CFIA has a "full-time presence" during all slaughter activities both inside the slaughter house and on the premises.
Consequences for non-compliance, she explained, may range from administrative monetary penalties, to written warnings, seizures, detentions, suspensions, production stop orders, prosecution or license cancellation.
“If any instances of non-compliance are found, the CFIA does not hesitate to take enforcement action,” Gauthier wrote. Addressing Mercy For Animals' concern about stopping the production lines in the event that an animal is still conscious before slaughter, she added that CFIA inspectors have the authority to intervene under such circumstances.
Pippus of Animal Justice remains skeptical — again, citing hidden-camera footage shot inside Canadian facilities, that appear to show harsh treatment of animals when no inspectors are present.
"The problem is there are not enough inspectors, they’re not always on site," she said. "Sometimes they rely on self-reporting, and unsurprisingly, we’ve uncovered enormous problems with the self-reporting system.
"Bear in mind that the CFIA is food safety-based... Often when they’re on site, they’re not on the kill floor watching for humane treatment, they’re much more interested in food safety issues, so you’ll often find them in the ante-mortem inspection or other areas of the facility where they’re doing things that they perceive as being more important."