Frequently asked questions
Under what conditions are animals raised for food in Quebec?
The vast majority of animals intended for food production in Quebec are raised in industrial (or “intensive”) farming conditions where housing systems and practices are designed to maximize meat, egg or milk production while keeping costs to a minimum.
This type of farming involves housing animals at high densities in closed buildings. Animals are confined to very small spaces, with very little room to move comfortably, express their natural behaviours or engage in normal interactions with others of their kind. Examples include laying hens kept in cages, sows confined to gestation crates, and dairy cows in tie stalls.
Doesn’t Quebec have animal welfare laws?
In 2015, through the passing of the Act to Improve the Legal Situation of Animals, a new provision was added to the Civil Code of Quebec recognizing that animals are not property but rather sentient beings. A new law focusing exclusively on animal welfare, the Animal Welfare and Safety Act, was also enacted. However, animals used for agricultural purposes are excluded from this law’s main protections.
At the time of the 2015 legislative changes, the then Minister of Agriculture also promised a regulatory framework for farm animal welfare. But 8 years later, regulations for farm animals have yet to be enacted.
Why do we say that farm animals are excluded from the main protections of the law?
Section 7 of the Animal Welfare and Safety Act excludes all animals used for agricultural purposes from its main protections, namely those included in sections 5 (requirement for an animal’s owner or custodian to provide them with water, food, shelter, care, etc.) and 6 (prohibition on causing distress to an animal), provided they are treated in accordance with the “generally recognized rules” of the industry. However, no such rules are defined in the Act. Thus, so long as a significant portion of the industry adopts a particular practice, it is considered consistent with the “generally recognized rules”. It is therefore the industry itself that determines which practices are exempt from the Act and therefore legal.
This is why it is perfectly legal, and even common practice, to castrate a piglet without anesthesia, whereas if the same procedure were performed on a dog or a cat, it would be punishable by a conviction and even a prison sentence.
The exemption set out in section 7 of the Animal Welfare and Safety Act excluding all animals raised for food from its main protections essentially allows the private sector to regulate itself and thus represents an abdication of public responsibility on the government’s part.
What are the farming Codes of Practice? Aren’t they regulations?
In the agri-food industry, most sectors that use animals are already involved, through the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), in the development and review of codes of practice for animal care and handling. These codes are nationally developed guidelines and reflect recommended animal rearing practices. However, they are not legally binding in Quebec, and compliance with these codes is strictly voluntary.
Furthermore, the industry plays an integral role in developing the codes and even has a majority representation on the code development committees.
Some sectors claim to require their producers to comply with the Codes of Practice. Even if this is the case, the fact that compliance with certain standards is made mandatory by the industry itself rather than by government raises several issues. First, the system put in place to ensure compliance typically relies on the industry auditing itself rather than independent third-party verification. Second, the penalties for noncompliance are also determined by the industry itself. Lastly, because it is a private monitoring system, it is not subject to the same transparency and accountability requirements as those associated with a public oversight system.
Certain provinces, such as Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island, have made adherence to NFACC Codes of Practice mandatory.
Do any regulations at all apply to farm animals?
While there are no regulations governing how animals are treated on farms, their transport and slaughter are regulated by certain federal and provincial laws.
The transport of animals raised for food is regulated by the federal Health of Animals Regulations and the provincial Animal Welfare and Safety Act. Their slaughter is governed by the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations at the federal level and the Regulation Respecting Food at the provincial level.
Where does Quebec stand in terms of international best practices?
In many other parts of the world, particularly in Europe, laws or regulations have been adopted to impose mandatory standards of care for all animals, including animals used for agricultural purposes. In Switzerland, for example, detailed regulations for each species and type of use have been developed.
Several practices that seriously compromise farm animal welfare and that have been banned elsewhere in the world—precisely for this reason—are still widespread in Quebec. For example, confining animals in very small spaces, thereby depriving them of the ability to move around comfortably, to engage in their natural behaviours and to interact normally with others of their kind, is common practice in most Quebec agri-food sectors. This is the case for laying hens kept in battery cages, sows confined to gestation and farrowing crates, and dairy cows in tie stalls.
Another kind of practice, also still common in Quebec but prohibited elsewhere, is systematic mutilation without adequate pain control. Calf and lamb castration, lamb tail docking and the partial debeaking of laying hens are all commonly practiced without any analgesia or anesthesia in Quebec. And as for piglets, they are castrated without anesthesia. Yet the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) considers many of these practices to be painful procedures for which both anesthesia and analgesia are required.
What about “free-run” and other animal welfare claims?
The Montreal SPCA believes that the agricultural industry should be required to disclose the farming methods used to produce meat, dairy and eggs through mandatory labelling. We in fact submitted comments to this effect to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in 2019 during a consultation held as part of the agency’s Food Labelling Modernization initiative.
Not only is there no mandatory labelling required for animal products, but animal welfare claims on food products are unregulated and therefore unverifiable for consumers. The term “free-run eggs,” for example, which is frequently used on egg packaging, is not regulated, so its use does not reflect specific standards and is not verified. In addition, the term is misleading because “free-run” hens are typically permanently housed indoors and packed in densities nearly as high as in caged production.
Don’t Quebec producers care about animal welfare?
The issue clearly doesn’t stem from the producers as individuals but rather from the system in which they operate. A regulatory framework with prescribed and mandatory standards will only benefit productions that are already concerned about animal welfare and will ensure that all others adopt best practices in a consistent and regulated way.
Do cows, chickens and pigs feel pain in the same way our companion animals do?
There is broad scientific consensus that these animals are just as capable of feeling pain and suffering as our dogs, cats and other companion animals. The further research progresses, the more science tells us that many animals have significantly more complex cognitive and emotional abilities than we initially suspected—and this applies as much to dogs and cats as it does to cows, pigs, chickens and other mammals and birds raised for food production. It is therefore necessary for the interests and needs of all animals to inform the way we treat them.
Yet animals raised for food are systematically excluded from the law’s main protections despite being sentient beings, with complex cognitive and emotional abilities. As a result, subjecting them to several painful practices which cause suffering remains permitted, when these same practices would be considered criminal if performed on dogs or cats, for example.
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