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Editorial: On your watch

The recent images from poultry operations in B.C.’s Fraser Valley are fresh in the minds of many Canadians.

That’s not good news for the livestock sector. What they’ve revealed is unflattering, shocking and immoral.

Contract ‘chicken catchers’ were caught on video stomping on birds, simulating sex acts on them and ripping limbs from living animals.

It’s true these individuals weren’t farmers themselves, and weren’t even directly employed by farmers. Nonetheless, their actions are now firmly ingrained in the minds of many with livestock operations. Mercy for Animals, the activist group behind the video, is surely happy with that development.

Six people have subsequently lost their jobs, including the supervisor who should have prevented these actions. That’s a good start, but what really needs to happen is for the industry to understand the new rules it’s now operating under.

These aren’t the formal rules of government. They’re the unwritten rules of societal expectation and self-preservation and the new reality that information is now all but impossible to withhold.

In an era of near-unfettered communication you can’t hide anything from the public, no matter how hard you try.

Take the example of the U.S. government, an organization few would argue doesn’t take information security seriously. In the past few years a slow drip of leaks has turned to a steady flow as one classified document after another has hit the Internet: Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, the release of secret documents and videos from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the list goes on and on.

If the U.S Army and the U.S. State Department can’t keep a secret, what chance does a chicken or hog producer stand? Doubly so with the explosion in cheap and readily available surveillance technology.

These days you can buy a high-tech, low-light security camera on Amazon for $28 that would be impossible to find with anything short of a strip search of everyone entering a barn and can be hidden nearly anywhere.

The size of a couple of matchbooks stacked on each other, it can capture high-resolution video for hours on a tiny card the size of a fingernail and operate for days on a single charge. Just a few more dollars can get you a camera that has similar capacities but is disguised as anything from a fire alarm to a USB charger.

Barn operators also can’t simply seal their operations off to outsiders. They’re always going to need tradespeople, service providers and labourers to enter the buildings. Any one of them may be there to plant a camera. And the nature of some of the work means help will always be hard to find and often the first warm body willing to do it will be hired.

That means barn operators need to act like there’s a camera in the corner of the barn at all times. They should also consider employing this technology to monitor animal welfare standards. Elite Services, the company at the centre of this particular scandal, says that’s its plan. It’s pledged to equip at least some of its staff with body cameras, much like those worn by many police officers.

It’s true that at least some of the animal rights activists who engage in this sort of activity hold a world view that wants to see animal agriculture disappear entirely. But they’ll likely never be large enough in numbers to ever cause that to happen. The real risk is in the less committed middle ground.

These are people who enjoy animal protein and want to continue to consume it. But they’re not comfortable with some of the things they’ve heard, and they’ll be really uncomfortable if they see it. It’s not the idea of chickens being caught and caged for slaughter that turns their stomachs, though they’d no doubt prefer not to dwell on that either. It’s the casual and needless cruelty they find objectionable.

Until recently, the livestock sector has been able to relax, knowing that most people love meat and there weren’t any meaningful alternatives.

That appears set to change, however, as major agriculture companies have begun to pump serious money into alternative protein production systems like plant-based ‘meats’ and even laboratory-grown meat.

It will no doubt take time for the products to be perfected and the processes scaled up to become economical. But that’s just a question of time and investment.

Livestock producers have also long thought the ‘yuck factor’ would prevent adoption of meat alternatives, especially of the test-tube variety.

That only works if their own products don’t have a similar association in the minds of many. It would be interesting to know how many Canadian consumers went to the store the day after they saw that video, looked at the cooler case full of chicken and thought “yuck.”

Protecting this market means preventing that association.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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