By Treena Hein
What has happened in Alberta and beyond since the W5 video release
By Treena Hein
When a W5 TV show story broke in October 2013 about alleged inhumane practices on two poultry farms in Alberta, it elicited a strong reaction from those inside and outside the poultry industry. The CTV current affairs documentary program depicted “undercover” video footage taken by Mercy for Animals Canada at Ku-Ku Farms (layers) in Morinville and Creekside Grove Farms (pullets) in Spruce Grove. The footage shows housing and euthanasia methods not compliant with industry recommendations or standards.
Amin Valji, owner of the farms, was a board member at the Egg Farmers of Alberta (EFA) at the time. He completed his second consecutive three-year term in February 2014, and following EFA regulations, was required to step down for a period of at least a year. He is eligible to run for election again in 2015.
EFA stated to Canadian Poultry after the video release that it had been “working closely with Mr. Valji, who is deeply concerned about what happened on his farm.” Both EFA and Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) inspected the farms, and Mr. Valji immediately reinforced training with all farm staff with the help of poultry veterinarians, and enhanced compliance measures. EFA stated that “Working through a situation like the one he’s currently facing provides Mr. Valji with unique insight and experience, which will be a valuable lesson to be shared with the EFA Board, his fellow producers and the Canadian egg industry.” Now that it’s about a year later, Canadian Poultry asks about the lesson learned, what’s been happening on the Valji farms, layer farms across Alberta, and beyond as well.
Now that it has been one year since the W5 video’s release, Canadian Poultry asks the EFA and Mr. Valji about the lessons learned, what’s been happening on his farms, and layer farms across Alberta and beyond as well.
In addition to immediately reinforcing and reviewing training with all farm staff with the help of poultry veterinarians, Mr. Valji developed and implemented Standard Operating Procedures and an Employee Code of Conduct, which are regularly updated and are now part of mandatory employee training. An on-farm inspection plan was also developed and implemented specifically for the farm’s pullet facility.
At the national level, EFC made expedited updates and additions to the country-wide Animal Care Program, with the Valji farm subjected to all of them before they were rolled-out across Canada. “[A] key change to the Animal Care Program was the addition of three new on-farm policies, which this farm became the first in Canada to adopt: the Farm Welfare Policy, the Employee Code of Conduct and the Visitor Policy,” explains EFA General Manager Susan Gal. “These additions help ensure that everyone on farm is made aware of animal care policies and best practices, receives proper animal handling training as required, and is familiarized with the accountability of their actions.”
Valji established a new Employee Animal Care Audit, which is completed on a quarterly basis, ensuring that the Farm Welfare Policy, the Employee Code of Conduct and Animal Care Program standards are being upheld by all employees. In terms of inspections of the Valji operations, Gal says multiple ones (including some that were unannounced) have been completed by numerous groups. “Inspections were performed by EFA, EFC, and the Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in addition to a complete animal care audit by Guelph Food Technologies,” she notes. “The farm passed every audit, which was a requirement for the province’s graders to begin accepting their eggs once again.”
We asked Mr. Valji what he has learned through having inhumane practices used by employees on his farms exposed in the 2013 W5 investigation and what occurred afterwards. “Through this experience, we realize that public perception is established immediately after video footage is depicted, whether or not it is accurate, or taken out of context,” he says. “During the entire experience, it was very important to us that we remain transparent at all times. We facilitated all inspections that were requested, and remained open to all the feedback and recommendations that were shared with us. Although it was a difficult situation, we kept our focus on implementing changes that would be positive for our farm and the Canadian egg industry.”
One of the key things that Valji identifies as having learned from this incident is the fact that as a farming operation becomes larger and the number of employees increases, the need for structured training programs and documentation is essential. “My father began a small family-run poultry farm over 30 years ago and, over time, we have slowly grown our farm into the larger-scale operation that we are proud to have today,” he explains. “With the additional employees we require, ensuring that every employee is following the established standards and the training they were provided has definitely become more of a challenge.”
Valji adds that the various policies, procedures, audits and training programs that they have implemented since the incident have helped them ensure that all employees are trained consistently and provide the expected standards of care. “While the measures we have taken required a significant commitment and much effort, they provide us with the reassurance that we are doing everything we can to maintain the highest standard of care possible for our flock,” he says.
During EFA’s regional producer meetings in January 2014, Mr. Valji shared his experience with his fellow egg farmers. EFA has also shared his story and insights as part of a ‘lessons learned’ document, which has been shared with Egg Boards across the country, as well as with many other producer groups. “His experience served as a reminder of the importance of ensuring that everyone on farm is keenly aware of the animal care program requirements,” says Gal, “and that anyone working directly with the birds has received up-to-date training on the best practices for hen handling.”
She notes that EFC continually works closely with the provincial Egg Boards to update and enhance the provincial on-farm programs, and that was no different over the past year. “Each update, addition and enhancement to the Animal Care Program that was first implemented on the farm in question, as well as further changes that are planned, was already either scheduled or in the works,” Gal says. Several updates took effect in August 2014 (changes to the Animal Care Program scoring framework, and the introduction of Farm Welfare Policy, Visitor Policy and Employee Code of Conduct), with several more updates ready to take effect in January 2015
(introduction of the Routine Inspection policy, introduction of the Handling, Catch and Loading policy, and introduction of the Euthanasia Plan).
“As of April 2014, adherence to the Animal Care Program a mandatory requirement for all Alberta egg famers, as a requirement for being licensed to produce eggs, and measures are taken immediately to address departures from accepted industry practices,” Gal says.
“The Canadian egg industry remains committed to continuous improvement,” she notes, “especially with regards to our national on-farm programs for animal care and food safety.