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A cause for dairy industry reflection

Milk is not just any food — as the first meal for humans and all fellow mammals, it is literally the giver of life, and as such has spiritual and even religious significance. We have special feelings about milk. One of the most successful advertising slogans in history was Carnation’s “From contented cows.” It connected with our desire to know that mothers are being well treated.

If you’ve ever toured a dairy barn and seen the cows look calmly around as you walk through, you feel “contented” is a pretty accurate description, and it’s a nice touch when the farmer gives one of “the girls” a little tap on the behind and says hello by name.

However, few of us have that privilege and for most consumers, the most recent image of a dairy barn is the undercover video footage taken at a farm in Chilliwack, B.C. For many, it’s literally unbearable to watch. It’s not only that you don’t want to see the suffering — it’s dismay that you’re a member of a species that could be capable of such barbarity.

In past examples where undercover footage has exposed abuse, the livestock industry has got it wrong. There have been claims that the abuse is “an isolated incident” or that the footage is “out of context.” There have been attempts to deflect blame to the undercover workers by claiming they were dishonest because they took the job. In the U.S. that’s led to some states passing “veggie libel laws” in which undercover workers or even food industry critics can be prosecuted. If you want to reinforce the notion that agriculture is being run by giant corporations that don’t care about animal welfare, this is a good way to do it.

After learning of the B.C. footage, it was encouraging to open the morning emails and see that this time, the industry got it right. The B.C. Dairy Association issued a statement expressing concern and pledging to work with authorities. The Kooyman family, owners of the operation, quickly issued a statement acknowledging the seriousness of the allegation, pledging to work with the B.C. SPCA and offering tours of the barn for media. It later said the employees had been terminated, that closed-circuit TV would be installed in its barns and that it would implement longer training periods for employees.

There is every reason to believe these improvements will be made, and every reason for consumers to believe that such abuse is not typical in Canadian dairy barns. Nonetheless, this incident should spark some industry reflection and discussion.

It may be naive to expect that all dairy operations be run by the farmers who know the name of each of their cows, though let’s face it, the Canadian dairy industry likes to create that impression, especially when it’s defending supply management. On one hand we have to be realistic about economies of scale — not many farmers want to be tied down to a part-time job with a herd of 30 cows. On the other, do we want to move to the U.S. system, which is now dominated by corporate herds of hundreds or thousands of cows managed by cheap (and often illegal) labour? What’s the middle ground?

The Kooyman operation is 3,000 cows, and while the incident may be isolated, it’s an illustration of the pitfalls of depending on hired staff in a tight labour market. If you need closed-circuit TV in your barn, you know you’re not hiring welfare-friendly employees with dairy experience.

If the Canadian dairy industry continues to evolve into larger and larger operations that depend on hired labour, it pretty much blows the arguments for supply management out of the water. At what point does Dairy Farmers of Canada’s “Run by farmers for farmers” slogan lose justification?

Supply management involves a quid pro quo — “something for something.” In return for protection from imports and a guaranteed price, farmers provide…”

What’s the answer? That’s what the industry needs to discuss. A steady supply of milk? Let’s face it — today, with most of the Canadian market within a few hours’ trucking time of the big U.S. dairy-producing areas, the Americans could supply us easily. And probably more cheaply, thanks to U.S. government subsidies.

Is another argument that supply management supports the family farm? Fair enough, but what’s a family farm? And is one of the arguments in favour of a family farm that the owners are around to ensure that “the girls” are being cared for properly?

Size of a herd is not necessarily an indication of how well it’s treated. But one thing is for certain. Supply management provides a structure to ensure a high welfare standard for Canadian cattle. Its future depends on proving that unlike in the U.S., Canadian milk really does come from contented cows.

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