The beef industry is bracing for changes to cattle transport regulations, fearing they might be based on perceptions rather than sound science.
Current rules require animals be off-loaded after 48 hours of transport for a minimum of five hours and provided with feed and water, unless they can reach their destination within 52 hours. The Canadian Food and Inspection Agency has been working on revisions to the regulations for several years but hasn’t given any indication of what might be in store.
But there are fears regulators might be influenced by public concerns that have been created by campaigns by animal rights activists condemning the current rules as inhumane.
“We’re not opposed to changes to the transport regulations, as long as those changes are based on scientific evidence and as long as those changes actually contribute to better welfare for the animals,” said Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers.
“We don’t want changes that are done because somebody thinks our current times are wrong or because Europe is doing something different. We need to look carefully at how the regulations are doing right now.”
The average length of long-haul trips in Canada is about 16 hours, and 95 per cent of cattle spend less than 30 hours in transit, he added.
However, there are few Canadian studies addressing animal welfare while in transit, said Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, senior research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
“Feed, water, and rest intervals are an area that a lot of people are interested in on a welfare basis, but we don’t have a lot of work done on that area,” she said. “We’re assuming that resting for longer periods of time is better, but we don’t really know where that line sits.
“The regulations say five hours, but they haven’t really tested any other times. Where they set those numbers really wasn’t based on any science at the time. We really need that research to inform what those should really be.”
It’s understandable that trucking of livestock has become a public issue, said Smith.
“Transportation of livestock is highly visible, and for a lot of people in the cities, sometimes the only time they see livestock is on a truck,” he said. “So they have concerns that it puts stress on the animals and potential for injuries. We share those concerns. We are actively conducting research on the best methods for the animals in terms of timing.
“But we’re not convinced from a scientific perspective that taking animals off a vehicle for a short period of time in a strange location and then putting them back on actually reduces stress compared to having them continue the trip and get to their end destination sooner.”
People often point to European standards for cattle transport, which require that animals receive one hour of rest for every 14 hours in transport, with a maximum duration of 28 hours.
But Canadian producers need regulations that make sense for Canadian conditions, said Schwartzkopf-Genswein.
“We don’t want to be so drastically different from those, but we also want to make sure that they meet the requirements of our country and the standards in which those transports take place,” she said.
“We don’t want something that’s imposed by somebody that doesn’t have the same conditions that we do. We have to be careful about that. We need to do the work and the comparisons and come up with what those numbers should be based on the transport of animals within our own country.”
Brady Stadnicki, policy analyst with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, agrees.
“If there’s going to be regulatory changes made, they need to be based on science that’s relevant to Canadian conditions for transport and, wherever possible, outcome based for the animal itself,” said Stadnicki.
“In order for us to support a reduction in hours in the regulations, there would need to be clear science that’s done under Canadian conditions that shows there’s benefits to the animals being transported and that outcomes would be improved.
“At this point, there isn’t research saying that shorter trips and more times loading and off-loading are more beneficial.”
In fact, a study from Colorado State University (among others) suggests that off-loading and reloading causes increased stress and injury to animals, added Schwartzkopf-Genswein.
“Are we imposing more welfare issues on them by off-loading them? Depending on what the CFIA regulations will be, we might have to off-load them multiple times before they reach their final destination. Those things have to be considered when we come up with those numbers.”
Schwartzkopf-Genswein has begun some of that Canadian-based research, through a large benchmark study of 6,500 animals that explored the relationship of shrink — a key sign of stress — and transport duration.
“What was found was that the 28- to 30-hour mark was when we really saw the conditions of the animals were indicating that they were stressed,” she said. “This tells us that transport shouldn’t last much longer than that point without food, water, or rest.”
Schwartzkopf-Genswein also found that 99.95 per cent of animals on trips greater than four hours arrived at their destinations injury free, while 99.98 per cent of animals on trips four hours or shorter arrived without injury.
That shows the current regulations are doing their job, said Stadnicki.
“The research that’s currently been done has essentially told us that outcomes are really positive in our industry,” said Stadnicki, adding that young calves or cull cows are more susceptible to stress or injury during transport than healthy, sound cattle.
“We’re always looking to improve, but if there’s really wide-sweeping changes that change how transportation is being done in the industry, it’s more likely to reduce our number of positive outcomes rather than increase on what we’re already delivering right now.”
The CFIA needs to take that into consideration before making any changes to cattle transport regulations, added Smith.
“They need to make sure that the changes they’re implementing actually make things better for the animals,” he said. “Cattle producers care deeply about the health and welfare of their animals, and we do everything we can to minimize stress and injury in transportation.
“We do have a shared concern, and as long as we can work together with the lawmakers and the CFIA to make sure that any changes that are made are based on science and actually make things better for the animals, we’d support that.”