It’s a message that we hear repeated often: interest in farming from the public has never been higher than it is right now.
This interest is fueled by many factors, including the local food movement, health awareness, economics, and concern for the environment and animal care.
Overall, interest in farming can be considered a good thing — consumers have been disengaged with how food is produced and the many challenges farmers and food industries face for too long. The opportunity for engagement is great, and consumers are willing to learn and listen.
Unfortunately for the poultry industry, the message consumers are hearing lately is not a positive one. Undercover animal activist videos portraying improper handling of turkey breeders, pullets and broiler chicks has gained national media attention and rattled retailers.
Of course the videos are meant to be sensational and promote the mandate of Mercy for Animals, the activist group behind them. But they point to several issues, like it or not, that need further discussion and consideration.
When such videos are released, industry goes into defense mode and says that animal care protocols are in place and should be adhered to; if not, employees are reprimanded and/or fired. This is true, but are employees being watched all of the time, and if so, who is responsible for this monitoring? Do employees have a complete understanding of what is expected with respect to animal welfare? Ultimately, it lies with the farm or business owner, and its importance needs to be made clear.
The Farm & Food Care Foundation (FFC) emphasizes having an animal care code of conduct for your farm or business in writing, and be willing to enforce it (information on developing your own code of conduct is available on our website www.canadianpoultrymag.com, in the article “Employees Handling Animals?”).
Industry also points to national guidelines, the Codes of Practice for Poultry, which are currently being updated (the current Codes were written in 2003). These guidelines are being coordinated by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), an organization made up of a diverse stakeholder group that consists of government, enforcement, animal welfare and farmer representatives. The NFACC has been reviewing and updating eight national animal welfare codes since 2010 and six are complete — but poultry is not one of these. Federal funding (provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) has lapsed and the application for renewed funding is currently stalled.
This is unfortunate because it gives activists fodder to argue that government and industry don’t care about poultry welfare.
Although the Canadian poultry industry has been a leader amongst livestock industries in terms of developing its own animal care programs, it is open to criticism from pundits that the programs are self-serving. Having an updated code of practice from what is perceived as a third-party interest group (the NFACC) will add an additional level of transparency.
Hopefully funding will resume and the new code will be available by the end of the year. In the meantime, industry needs to focus on ensuring that existing practices are adhered to at all times, because when lapses are caught on camera nobody wins.