Peter Fricker: Is consumer change the only way to reduce cruelty in industrialized agriculture?

Recent video allegation about animal abuse at yet another Fraser Valley operation brings subject to public attention again

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      The blurb on a local tourism website says B.C.’s Fraser Valley “is known for its historical roots, agriculturally rich soils, and awe-inspiring vistas.”  Sadly, it’s also becoming known for some of the most horrific cases of farm-animal cruelty in Canada.

      In June, undercover video released by animal activists showed horrific conditions at three Abbotsford egg farms, including footage of chickens, some still alive, buried up to their necks in feces. The video was turned over to the B.C. SPCA, which said it was “investigating another situation where chickens have allegedly suffered as a result of what appears to be a blatant disregard to adherence of the industry’s own agreed-upon standards of care and a failure to either comply with or put in place processes to ensure this type of suffering does not occur”.

      It has since emerged that one of the operations being investigated by the B.C. SPCA is chicken-catching company Elite Farm Services, which was named in a major animal-cruelty case in Chilliwack last year.

      In that case, footage obtained by animal activists showed chickens being mangled, stomped on, thrown against a wall, and smashed into transport crates. The B.C. SPCA recommended charges, but more than a year later Crown counsel has still not prosecuted anyone.

      Crown counsel did charge dairy company Chilliwack Cattle Sales and several of its employees in a shocking animal-cruelty case in 2014.  Again, undercover animal activists obtained video, this time revealing dairy cows being beaten with chains and kicked and punched in the face by workers. Other cows were shown with open wounds and infections. Chilliwack Cattle Sales was fined $300,000 and some of the employees received jail time.

      The response from the dairy and egg industries to these cases was predictable.  “I want the world to know that the overwhelming majority of dairy farmers were very disappointed by what happened,” said one leading Chilliwack dairy farmer, adding that what happened at the Chilliwack Cattle Sales farm was not the norm. 

      A spokesman for Egg Farmers of Canada, commenting on the chicken cruelty in Abbotsford, told media: “By no means do we tolerate any animal mistreatment. Care of our hens is a top priority. And we take this allegation very seriously.”

      Yet across much of the world, exposés of farm-animal cruelty have become almost routine. The ease with which the undercover investigators have been able to find and reveal abuse suggests that animal cruelty in intensive farming is not the rare occurrence that operators claim.

      Media coverage of animal cruelty on industrialized farms in the United States has become so commonplace and damaging to the industry that it has lobbied for “ag-gag” laws criminalizing undercover videos of the cruelty.

      Despite the cruelty scandals, industrialized animal farming continues unabated in the Fraser Valley. Even the most horrific cases seem to fade from public memory. Is it compassion fatigue or perhaps cognitive dissonance, as many of us don’t want to associate the cruelty with what we eat? And “livestock” don’t attract the same empathy as puppies or kittens, as evidenced by the ongoing Chilliwack Fair rodeo, which sees calves, steers, and bulls routinely brutalized for entertainment.

      One answer, for many animal advocates, is to keep pressing government and the animal-agriculture industry to improve animal-welfare standards on Canada’s farms. For many others, the most effective action is to eliminate, or at least reduce, the consumption of animal-based products—a notion that would have been farfetched a few years ago but now seems entirely plausible.

      For example, global dairy consumption declined by 22 percent between 2006 and 2016, largely because of the rise of nondairy alternatives. The continued introduction and improvement of plant-based products—such as A&W Restaurants’ recently launched Beyond Burger and even egg alternatives—suggest the same could happen with animal proteins across the board.

      As these products become competitive on price, taste, and nutrition, one crucial question could arise in consumers’ minds: if I can eat well without cruelty or slaughter, why not?

      It’s a question that may ultimately have as much impact on the Fraser Valley’s factory farms as the cases of shocking animal abuse for which they have become notorious.

      Peter Fricker is the projects and communications director for the Vancouver Humane Society.

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