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Farm animal welfare certification

Background

There was a time when the family farm was the predominant supplier of meat and dairy products across Canada and around the world. Times have changed, however, and the family farm has been replaced by intensive farming practices on large factory farms. With it, the treatment of animals has changed – and not for the better.

Where chickens once roamed free in the barnyard, most are now cooped up nearly their entire lives in battery cages so small they can’t even stretch out their wings. An estimated 98% of Canada’s eggs are laid by battery cage hens. Calves of dairy cows are often penned in veal crates and fed a restricted diet to produce soft, pale flesh. Sows are kept most of their lives in very restrictive gestation stalls during their pregnancy and they give birth in farrowing crates that can barely hold them with their piglets. Instead of rooting in the mud they bite the bars of their cages and rarely see the light of day.

A little more than a decade ago, few governments around the world had regulations or standards to ensure even minimum standard of humane treatment for farm animals. The Royal SPCA in the United Kingdom took the initiative in 1994 to introduce a farm animal welfare certification and labelling program called Freedom Food.

The Freedom Food program established welfare standards that required food producers certified under the program to raise their animals in a manner consistent with the animal welfare principle of Five Freedoms.

Since then, there has been an enormous growth in consumer demand for assurance that the meat, milk and eggs they buy come from producers who treat their animals humanely. Various humane food certification programs have appeared across North America and Europe, along with the use of labels such as “cage-free”, “free-run” and “free-range” on animal food products.

Certification in Canada

In 2002, the BC SPCA launched Canada’s first government-approved animal welfare certification program, modelled on the Freedom Food program. To date, nearly 1.8 million farm animals have been raised to BC SPCA standards, with certified producers throughout B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The Winnipeg Humane Society introduced its own Winnipeg Humane Society Certified program also in 2002, based on organic standards.

Animal welfare standards are also included among the criteria for organic food certification and the Certified Local Sustainable/Local Food Plus program.

Click here for more information on these and other certification schemes used in Canada.

How does certification work?

Animal welfare certification is a method of assuring consumers that the animals used to produce their meat, dairy and egg products were raised according to standards that are more humane than normal industry practices. Farmers voluntarily apply to be certified and inspections are carried out to verify animal welfare practices on the farm. Once the farms are a part of the program, they are entitled to use a logo on their product packaging to identify them as certified.

The label assures that animals have been raised according to the standards established by the certifying organization. While these standards vary from one certification program to the next, they usually include a prohibition on using pharmaceuticals or hormones to promote growth or production; a prohibition on using cages or stalls that dramatically restrict movement (such as battery cages for hens, tie stalls for cattle or gestation stalls for pigs); and housing that allows animals to express natural behaviours required for their well-being (e.g. nest building, foraging, rooting).

Unverified labels: free-range, free-run, cage-free, grass-fed…

In addition to the certification programs described above, there are various terms used on food packaging that are meant to address animal welfare concerns. For instance, the following terms are commonly seen on egg cartons:

  • Free-run: hens are kept in open barns, uncaged
  • Free-range: hens are kept in open barns, uncaged, with access to the outdoors.

It is important to note that hens raised in either of these cage-free systems may still be kept in very crowded conditions inside the barn. Furthermore, in Canada there is no independent inspection or verification to ensure that producers using these labels are in fact raising their animals in the method indicated.

In order to be sure that eggs or poultry products come from cage-free chickens, consumers in Canada should always look for certified organic, BC SPCA certified or Certified Local Sustainable products. Producers certified to meet these standards have been inspected to make sure their chickens are kept in free-range or free-run conditions, and also that they are given a minimum space allowance far higher than the industry norm.

The same goes for terms like “grass-fed”, “pasture-raised” and so on; producers who use these labels on their products have not been inspected to make sure they’re raising their animals in the method indicated, unless they are also certified under a program that includes that method in its requirements.
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