Egg producers in Alberta are now required to sign a “zero tolerance” pledge for animal abuse.
“Any form of abuse, neglect, cruelty, or mistreatment of the birds under our care will not be tolerated and may be grounds for immediate disciplinary action up to and including dismissal,” the pledge states.
Any farm that has severe animal welfare issues — like the instances seen in a now infamous Mercy for Animals video shot on an Alberta poultry operation — can have its egg-production licence suspended immediately.
“The zero tolerance to animal abuse was an unwritten policy before, but we’ve put it in there to make sure that everybody has a very strong understanding of what abuse means,” said Susan Schafers, chair of the Egg Farmers of Alberta.
“If there ever was to be a problem, we have a way to deal with it, rather than dealing with it on a case-by-case basis.”
The farm welfare policy, which along with animal welfare also covers areas such as biosecurity, came into effect in August, and has been strengthened since then.
“We’ve really gone beyond the code of practice requirements,” said Christina Robinson, producer services manager for the Egg Farmers of Alberta.
As of Jan. 1, producers must document daily barn inspections and abide by new handling, catching and loading guidelines for moving birds.
The new policy follows in the wake of one of the most publicized cases of abuse in the Canadian poultry industry — a 2013 undercover video shot by Mercy for Animals at Kuku Farms and Creekside Grove Farms near Edmonton.
It showed workers euthanizing chicks by striking their heads against a hard surface and tossing birds that were still alive into garbage bags. It also showed birds suffering from severe feather loss crammed into crowded cages.
The video, which was aired on CTV’s “W5” in October 2013 and attracted national media coverage, prompted the Egg Farmers of Canada to commission the Center for Food Integrity in Kansas City to review it.
Although the three-person panel — which included University of Calgary animal welfare professor Ed Pajor — said it wasn’t possible to assess the operations based on the brief scenes in the video, they also stated those scenes “clearly show unethical and irresponsible treatment of animals.”
“It’s unacceptable and is not supported by any code of practice that I’m aware of,” Pajor said, following the panel’s review. “The rough handling, method of euthanasia, and quality of cage inspection are serious animal welfare concerns in this video.”
But Schafers said the new zero-tolerance policy, initiated by Egg Farmers of Canada, has been in the works for a long time and wasn’t a reaction to the incidents at KuKu and Creekside Grove farms.
“The KuKu incident has certainly brought some awareness to the whole industry, but Mercy for Animals Canada has done exposés on a lot of agricultural industries,” said the Stony Plain-area producer. “Everybody has an increased level of awareness.”
“We were reviewing the final draft of the policy in August and September, before we even knew the video was coming out,” added Robinson. “It may have pushed it up a bit, but it was still in the works.”
Pajor said the Calgary Stampede is the only other organization he knows of that pledges a zero-tolerance approach on an animal welfare issue.
“The zero-tolerance pledge isn’t something that comes to my mind as being common,” he said in an interview. “Where it is included in other types of assessments is that there is zero tolerance towards wilful acts of abuse during assessments and audits. A lot of assessments and audits will include automatic failure at the farm if there is abuse. But the idea of pledging zero tolerance for something is not something that I’ve seen a lot of.”
Pajor approves of the yearly signing of the pledge.
“Because they’re supply managed, they can actually control the licensing. What is good about the pledge is that it is an annual reminder of making sure that this is on people’s radar screen.”
As part of an animal care program introduced in 2004, producers are subject to regular audits on their farm. As of last year, producers need to obtain a score of 90 per cent to be licensed to sell eggs.
The Egg Farmers of Alberta has also created a policy for staff who witness animal abuse or cruelty.
“If any field inspectors or our staff are on farm and we see something that’s unacceptable, we now have a clear process on what to do to ensure that immediate action is taken to deal with the issue,” said Robinson.
The Egg Farmers of Alberta is still audited using a three-step audit process — a commonly used model in commodity organizations that have on-farm audits, said Pajor.
Anything that is causing immediate welfare concerns, such as injury or mortality to the bird, needs to be addressed as soon as possible, whereas minor adjustments to equipment have a different timeline.
Elements are weighted differently and the signed zero-tolerance pledge is now considered an essential part of the scoring.
Audits are conducted by inspectors from the Egg Farmers of Canada, with about one-third of audits to be completed by a third party. Audits are scheduled ahead of time because of the challenge of visiting farms spread throughout Alberta, but producers are not given a lot of advance warning before visits.
Egg producers must also have their employees sign a code of conduct, that sets out what is expected of them in terms of providing proper animal care. Employees must also promise to report any improper animal care they observe to their farm manager.