by SUSAN MANN
Chicken farmer John Maaskant is concerned the publicity surrounding charges against Maple Lodge Farms Ltd. under the federal animal welfare legislation will give animal rights groups more opportunities to criticize the industry and make it look bad.
“They will criticize whatever is a sensitive area,” says Maaskant, who farms in Huron County. The groups might talk about animal welfare, but what they’re really trying to do is restrict animal agriculture and, if possible, eliminate it, he claims.
Maaskant is also a director on Chicken Farmers of Ontario, a provincial organization that represents farmers, and was chair of the former Ontario Farm Animal Council, which has been rolled into Food & Farm Care Ontario. He notes his views are personal and do not represent any organization.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) charged the company with causing “undue suffering to chicken during transport by reason of undue exposure to inclement weather” under a section of the federal Health of Animals Act regulations, writes Carol Gardin-Frazer, Maple Lodge Farms Ltd. corporate communications officer in an email. Sixty charges have been laid.
Two are being heard at a Brampton courthouse. Hearings began in September and continue into May. CFIA spokesperson Lisa Gauthier says by email they can’t discuss any details because the matter is before the courts. She did not provide information about the status of the other 58 counts.
One of the counts being heard relates to 711 birds arriving dead in a load of about 10,000 at the company’s processing plant on Dec. 30, 2008. The other relates to 1,181 birds in a load of 11,000 arriving dead on Feb. 23, 2009.
Gardin-Frazer says they can’t comment on the specific matters before the courts while the proceedings are going on “but be assured that Maple Lodge Farms is committed to the respectful, humane treatment of chickens.”
The company is “distressed and concerned that these incidents occurred first and foremost for moral and ethical considerations, but also because we rely on the good health of birds in order to ensure the continued success of our company,” Gardin-Frazer says.
The company claims compliance with industry guidelines and “took all reasonable measures within our capacity to protect the chickens in question from inappropriate exposure to inclement weather and attendant suffering,” she explains. She adds that the company is also working with others in the industry to improve transportation equipment, facilities and processes and has invested more than $35 million in the past three years for this work.
Gardin-Frazer says that customers of the Brampton-based chicken processor are aware of the company’s “high standards of quality” and claims they “remain supportive of us.”
She did not respond to emailed questions regarding how much it costs the company each year for birds perishing during transportation, how many birds it transports each year and how many of them die.
Maple Lodge is Canada’s largest chicken processor and the largest buyer of spent hens in North America.
Crystal Mackay, executive director for Food & Farm Care Ontario, which represents a number of farm groups and businesses couldn’t be reached for comment. The organization addresses animal welfare issues for the provincial industry.
University of Guelph Prof. Tina Widowski, Egg Farmers of Canada chair in poultry welfare, says the dead arrival numbers in these two cases are over twice as high as what would be considered acceptable.
The thermal conditions on trucks put animals at risk because the vehicles lack proper heating and ventilation systems, she explains. “All of the airflow that occurs within transport vehicles has to depend on the truck moving.”
In the summer, animals are at risk for heat stress particularly when trucks have to slow down or stop. In the winter, tarps are put on the outside of trucks to retain heat but the birds are producing heat resulting in hot and cold pockets on the vehicles. “Maintaining an acceptable temperature throughout the truck, particularly in poultry transportation, is an extreme challenge,” she says.
It’s expensive to install proper heating and ventilation on trucks and people haven’t put a lot of thought or research energy into it in North America, Widowski explains. She says improving vehicle design would be the best solution to reducing thermal stress.
Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada, says incidents of this kind are upsetting to Canadians and to the marketplace. “It wouldn’t surprise me if incidents such as this did turn people away from using chicken.” The association is happy the CFIA identified the problem and laid charges.
Spokespeople for animal welfare groups say the industry needs to do better.
Liz White, director of Animal Alliance of Canada, an animal welfare organization,
calls the volume of birds the company handles “unbelievable.”
“We're talking about 15 to 20 broiler trucks a day, five days a week, Monday to Friday, and it goes for 16 hours a day and I think it goes 52 weeks a year,” she says, referring to company statistics presented in court documents. “The number of spent hen trucks (per day) is 15 to 20. We're talking between 30 and 50 trucks carrying an average of 10,000 chickens (each). That 's what goes through the plant every day.”
White says the industry needs to stop processing such large volumes because it’s problematic. “The bottom line has to be the consideration of the birds.”
Stephanie Brown, director of the Canadian Coalition of Farm Animals, a group made up of animal protection organizations, says bad weather is a fact of life in Canada in both the summer and winter. “When that happens there needs to be a way to compensate for that by either not shipping chickens or shipping them by different methods,” she says.
Farmers also have certain responsibilities to ensure birds are shipped properly. “At the very least it’s something they should care about that the bird are going to get decent transportation,” she notes.
Maaskant says farmers do care. “When there are birds dying and suffering from extreme conditions, that’s a concern to us as farmers. I want my chickens to be safe and comfortable as much as possible.”
Gwen Zellen, Chicken Farmers of Ontario vice president food quality, operations and risk management, says, “we work together with all of industry to maximize the care of poultry.”
According to the CFIA’s website, Maple Lodge Farms has had other infractions related to federal animal transportation regulations racking up $120,600 in fines from January to June 2011. BF