Interview with an activist

Over the weekend, I won two awards at the annual Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation convention held this year in Charlottetown, PEI.

In the category of Monthly Press Reporting – The Jack Cram Award, I won Bronze for my work in the Western Hog Journal, of which I am editor. This award was won for an interview conducted with the leader of Mercy For Animals Canada, the organization responsible for several recent undercover video investigations at livestock operations across the nation.

I should note that it was a very pleasant, professional interview. I made no bones about my own position in support of meat consumption, the humane treatment of livestock animals for consumption, and hunting. The dialogue was respectful, and while I obviously do not advocate veganism, I absolutely believe that industry needs to continue to improve on welfare and handling issues. We have improved a great deal, and I believe we will continue to do so.

The following article was published in the fall 2013 edition of the Western Hog Journal.

 

Interview with an activist – a rare glimpse at the other side of the issue

For better or for worse, animal activists will always be part of the agricultural landscape, but can we learn from them?

In December of 2012, video secretly taken at a Manitoba hog operation was released to the media. It was recorded by an undercover investigator working for Mercy For Animals Canada, who posed as a worker at the facility.

While the new code of practice for pigs was already being worked on when video was released, it catapulted the issue of sow stalls onto the public’s radar, and is credited with accelerating retailer’s demands for future group housing.

Stephane Perrais, the director of operations for Mercy For Animals Canada, agreed to grant Western Hog Journal’s Sheri Monk a candid interview about the video, and his take on Canada’s pork industry.

 

The video begins with eerie, unsettling music in the background, and as the camera pans across the sows in stalls, a female voice begins to narrate.

“The footage you are about to see was recorded with a hidden camera by a Mercy For Animals Canada investigator.”

The camera then cuts to a piglet being slammed to the concrete floor by a worker, then to a sow with an eye infection. The voice continues, “It was shot at a Manitoba pig factory farm that supplies pork to WalMart, Superstore, Loblaw, and Metro.”

The video’s title, “Crated Cruelty” is splashed across the screen, and the sows in stalls return.

“Thousands of pregnant pigs are confined to filthy gestation crates so small, they are unable to even turn around or lie down comfortably for their entire lives. Driven mad from stress and boredom, these naturally curious and social animals have noting to do day after day, hour after hour, but to bite the bars of their cages out of desperation.”

It’s only four minutes long, but with seamless edits and high production values, the film is packs a punch – which was exactly what it was designed to do. Less than five months after it was released, the Retail Council of Canada announced that some of its major retailer members were voluntarily phasing out the stalls by 2022. Those retailers included Co-op Atlantic, Canada Safeway, Costco Wholesale Canada, Federated Co-operatives Limited, Loblaw Companies Limited, Metro Inc., Sobeys Inc., and Walmart Canada.

“The aim of our investigation was not just to reveal certain practices which were absolutely egregious animal cruelty, but also to make people understand that a lot of the practices they witnessed in this footage were actually considered standing operating procedures from the industry,” Perrais said.

The announcement of the 2022 retail phase-out came somewhat as a surprise to the hog industry in Canada. After all, the Retail Council of Canada was actively engaged with the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) as one of the stakeholders helping to develop the new pig code of practice. When the draft code was released on June 1 – a little more than a month after the Retail Council made its announcement – it proposed phasing out sow stalls by 2024. Did the undercover video trigger the decision? Perrais is confident it did.

“I think the investigation was a catalyst, and it certainly helped speed up the process,” he said.

As with any visual presentation designed to trigger emotions, it’s just often the context and background that causes a reaction as much as the actual content, and “Crated Cruelty” was no exception. Although plenty of the video was genuinely off-putting, much of the video showed current industry standards – perhaps executed poorly – but the public lack the context to know what current standards are, or why they are employed.

“I know the industry has condemned some of these practices, such as pulling a sow by its ears, or kicking a sow or jumping up and down on a sow after it was killed,” said Perrais. “And I think not only was the public shocked by those images, but also shocked to learn that certain things that we demonstrated such as the castration of piglets without anesthetics, or the thumping of a sick piglet against a concrete wall or floor to kill them – these practices are standard in the industry.”

Retailers fear visceral public reactions, and once such a reaction has begun, it can be very difficult for the meat industry to back away from. Animal husbandry is a complicated business, and it’s not easy to explain to the public why castration without anesthetic is performed, or that animal welfare was one of the reasons sow stalls were introduced in the first place.

“I think that’s what really brought it to the forefront is a lot of people were shocked to realize that not only was there an issue pertaining to the extreme confinement of these animals, but also that all these other practices were the industry standard,” Perrais explained.

 

Retailers were pressured

Perrais says that in Canada, there aren’t a lot of options open to animal rights organizations like there are in some states south of the border. There, he says, voters can have referendums at election time on any issue and through that mechanism, animal rights agendas have been forwarded, such as banning confinement practices.

“Unfortunately, we do not have that ability in the current Canadian system. The biggest agents for change were the grocers themselves because of their purchasing power,” he said.

Before and after the investigation, retailers in Canada were approached by Mercy For Animals Canada and asked to stop supporting confinement practices in the hog industry by publicly stating their opposition to it. Several companies in the U.S. had already taken that step, including McDonald’s in 2012.

“We felt that the Canadians were just a step behind, and that they could also make a similar commitment. They refused and so we kept up the pressure,” said Perrais.

When contacted, Perrais said the retailers would respond by stating their affiliation with the Retail Council of Canada, and the work that was being done to modernize the pig code. Meanwhile, Mercy for Animals kept on them, informing them whenever another big company would come out against the stalls. In Canada, Olymel and Maple Leaf announced their intentions to phase them out, and Perrais feels the campaign gathered even more momentum then.

“We went back to the grocers and said even some of the producers themselves think that systems have to go. I think after a while they did come to the realization that it was not sustainable in the long run to continue hiding behind the Retail Council,” he explained.

 

Will the new code be enough?

When Perrais was interviewed, the draft code hadn’t yet been released, but he was confident it would include a phase-out of the stalls. However, he was adamant that even if the new code does discontinue use of sow stalls, it wouldn’t be enough to protect the animals because at the end of the day, producers are not bound by law to follow it.

“Some of the footage that we documented, if it was done to a cat or a dog, it would be considered animal cruelty. Castrating your pet in the backyard or cutting its tail off without anesthetic or just deciding to thump it against the wall because it was sick, those would be animal cruelty charges if it was a domestic animal. But because they are farm animals and they have absolutely no legal protection whatsoever in Canada, anything can be done to them during the course of their life,” said Perrais. “As long as they are not mandated and not enforced, and there are no penalties attached to it whether they are financial penalties or jail time, no, it’s not really enforceable because then you can basically do what you want.”

While Canada’s codes of practice aren’t enforceable by law, they can be used as the standards used to benchmark appropriate care in cases where provincial entities may be investigating animal neglect.

“There are only two federal laws that pertain to farm animals. One of them is called the Meat Inspection Act and deals with the slaughter process, but it mostly deals with the design and all the issues pertaining to the slaughter process and the other one deals with the transportation of farm animals. The only time the animals are subject to federal law is during their transport to slaughter and during the slaughter process, and both of those laws are extremely weak,” he said.

 

An uncertain future with or without stalls

Even without the added economic burden of having to invest in new group housing infrastructure, pork producers in Canada have been struggling. An industry-wide exodus continues and smaller producers throw in the towel out of desperation and consolidation of the business continues. Many people fear the sow stall phase-out will become the final nail in the coffin for struggling producers – many of which are family farms. But Perrais is not buying that story because he says the pork industry’s infrastructure is aging after an expansion boom in the ‘90s, and current facilities are nearing the end of their lifespan.

“If you look at our footage closely, you’ll notice that a lot of the gestation crates that we filmed were all rusted. There was filth everywhere. The walls, the floor – everything was covered with filth. I can understand that people will hang onto certain systems, but the need to convert to group housing is something that they will have to absorb sometime in the next decade, and we don’t consider these new or unexpected costs,” he said.

Perrais attributes much of today’s economic strife in the business to the economies of scale that have become prevalent throughout agriculture.

“What I would say to the small family farms, and what I would say to you who advocates for them, is that we haven’t started this demise. It was started many years ago when factory farms were started and agricultural groups such as Maple Leaf and Cargill and all these other ones decided to integrate a lot of their operations. We are saying that the practices that they decided to undertake are completely abusive and extremely cruel, and we are focusing on them because 95-99 per cent of the food (from animals) that’s produced in Canada is raised in factory farms.”

He also says the model of constantly trying to decrease pricing at the retail level has changed the landscape.

“They can moan and be grumpy about animal activists, but ultimately, they should really realize that the problem lies with these big, big corporations that have slowly but surely put pressure on price. They are constantly putting pressure on prices, but you also then have to ask the consumer and citizen if they want to live in a civilized and compassionate society, and what price are they willing to pay for it.”

 

Philosophical differences

The bottom line is that Mercy For Animals Canada and other animal activist groups don’t just want an end to sow stalls – they want an end to meat, period. In fact, they advocate for veganism, which is an entirely plant-based diet, free of any animal products, including dairy and eggs. Yet, despite their complete lack of participation in animal husbandry as a consumer, animal rights organizations do influence policy.

According the NFACC, Canada is unique in its development of codes of practice, and the process and the subsequent standards assist in stabilizing livestock production against extremist pressure.

“It almost seems that as we’ve learned more and more about these animals, we’ve decided to confine them more and more. And today I think we’ve come to a point where it’s no longer tenable to have such a position with all the knowledge about the sentience and the awareness these animals have. We cannot just view them like we used to in the 16th or 17th century as robots that are devoid of any emotions, but that they are actually living, breathing and feeling creatures,” he said.

For people like Perrais, the animal rights movement is a life-long struggle against injustice and cruelty. For farmers, it’s viewed as one of the biggest threats to their future, and the future of their communities. What happens in the future will largely depend on the public, and how the public perceives livestock production into the future. The battle for the heart and stomach of consumers won’t be fought in the boardroom, or even in the pages of an industry magazine like this one. It’s a war that’s already hit the streets, and it’s hard to imagine a truce.

“Through the ad campaign that we launched, we’re trying to make people realize that these animals are true living beings that have a whole range of emotions, that they’re as conscious and aware as we are, and just because we can’t communicate with them in a language, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t treat them with utmost respect,” Perrais said.

Many animal activists use the term ‘speciesism’ to describe the inequality of how animals are treated. The term is applied in the same way that racism and sexism are used, and is based upon the notion that every species – not just humans – are entitled to personhood.

It’s difficult to imagine a middle ground where meat producers and vegans could break bread together, but the livestock industry is increasingly concerning itself with animal welfare concerns brought forward by activist groups. In 2011, precedent was set when the United Egg Producers of the U.S. announced they had made a deal with the Humane Society of the United States to seek a federal law requiring larger cages and better conditions for all laying hens in the country. The United Egg Producers were lambasted by other livestock producers for making a deal with the devil, and HSUS was viewed by many activists as traitors for doing the same.

While there haven’t been as many animal rights undercover investigations in Canada as there have been in the U.S., there’s little doubt there will be others in the future.

“Nothing is off limits as far as we’re concerned. Our first investigation just happened to be in a pig breeding facility, but all of the animal production industry is on our radar, absolutely,” Perrais said.

In some ways, the extremism of the animal rights movement has in part insulated livestock production. Very public protests by organizations such as PETA are sometimes so outrageous that the moderate middle is alienated by them. Meat consumers often aren’t sure of the difference between a vegetarian or a vegan, and why some vegetarians will eat some animal products and not others. It’s a question that even perplexes Perrais, and he is an avid vegan.

“If you look back at the history of the words ‘veganism’ and ‘vegetarianism,’ they were one and the same, but over the years I think the word vegetarian sort-of got hijacked by people who were not eating meat, but were eating fish and dairy products,” he explained. “Honestly, I really don’t understand why people would continue to eat fish and dairy and eggs. I think it’s because a lot of the studies that have been done fish are considered as being a completely different type of animal, it’s much more difficult for us to relate to them.”

Like other animal rights groups, Mercy For Animals Canada tries to engage the public with advertising to make them reconsider their choice to eat animals. But given the chance, would they eliminate the choice entirely?

“Making meat illegal? That’s the first time I’ve heard the question. Ultimately, we would like to see meat consumption decline tremendously, but whether making meat illegal is the way forward… I’m not really sure that’s the best avenue,” said Perrais, who emphasized that if people switch to veganism, they’re more likely to stick with it if they are doing it for ethical reasons.

“Making it illegal would be great, but I don’t see that happening, and I don’t know if that ultimately would result in the right effect because it’s almost like Big Brother showing up and telling them what to do. But if you educate the people, then the decision becomes theirs, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”