Unlike Canada, EU surges ahead on animal welfare reform

Peter Fricker
Toronto Star
Publication Date:
June 4, 2009


The recent uproar over Canada’s seal hunt (and the Governor General’s appetite for seal heart) saw widespread charges of hypocrisy levelled at the European Union over its ban on seal products. Critics repeatedly point to Spanish bullfights or French foie gras production as evidence of Europe’s poor animal welfare record. While these practices deserve criticism, the truth is that Europe is light years ahead of Canada in animal welfare policy. In fact, among developed countries, Canada is at the bottom of the league in its treatment of animals.

It is a well-documented fact that the European Union has led the world in reforming farm animal welfare, working to reduce the suffering of hundreds of millions of animals. Some examples:

In 2007, the EU banned veal crates. The crates, so small that the incarcerated calf cannot turn around for most of its 16-week life, have been illegal in Britain since 1990.

Sow stalls, which keep pregnant pigs in such close confinement they are virtually unable to move throughout their 16-week pregnancy, will be banned in the EU in 2013. Tethers, used to further restrict sows’ movement, were prohibited in 2006.

The EU has agreed to ban battery cages for laying hens in 2012, stopping a practice that denies the birds virtually all their natural behaviours and keeps them so cramped they cannot even flap a wing.

All these systems and practices remain in use in Canada, where farm animal welfare is governed by an entirely voluntary, unaudited set of “recommended codes of practice.”

Moreover, the EU is committed to further advancing animal welfare reform. A protocol in the Treaty of Amsterdam legally recognizes animals as sentient beings and requires member states to “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.” Animal welfare standards are being incorporated in EU trade agreements.

Farm animal welfare is also moving forward elsewhere. California recently banned battery cages, sow stalls and veal crates. Colorado, Florida, Oregon, Arizona and Maine have passed legislation banning intensive confinement systems. Nothing comparable is happening in Canada.

A report by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS) released earlier this year ranked Canada well behind Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the EU in terms of farm animal welfare. The report found that all these jurisdictions spent millions of dollars on animal welfare, while Canada’s latest five-year agriculture plan virtually ignores the issue. The CFHS, a mainstream organization representing most of Canada’s SPCAs and humane societies, said Canada’s record was “shameful.”

The same could be said of Canada’s treatment of animals generally. In 2008, all Canadian animal welfare organizations loudly opposed Bill S-203, the federal government’s hopelessly weak animal cruelty legislation. Despite this opposition, the bill passed, leaving Canada’s animals without the kind of legal protection they have in other countries. The legislation’s predicted ineffectiveness has been borne out, with several horrific animal cruelty cases resulting in little or no penalty for the perpetrators. This included the acquittal of a man who killed five dogs with a hammer and the case of man who threw a kitten off a balcony and then ran over it with his car – the charges were dropped. The CFHS says Michael Vick, the American football player charged for involvement in a dogfighting ring, would not have been convicted had his crimes taken place in Canada.

Less than one-quarter of one per cent of charges under the animal cruelty provisions of the Criminal Code result in convictions. An International Fund for Animal Welfare survey of animal cruelty laws in 14 countries ranked Canada last in a comparison of effective animal protection legislation.

Despite all this, defenders of Canada’s commercial seal hunt continue to point at Europe’s bullfighting and foie gras. Yet a closer look reveals that there is considerable European opposition to both practices. Fifteen European states, including Germany, Norway, Denmark and Austria, have banned the production of foie gras. Bullfighting is banned in a number of EU countries, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. Polls show most Europeans abhor bullfighting. Even within Spain there is opposition – Barcelona banned the practice in 2004. Foie gras and bullfighting are staunchly defended by entrenched minority interests, but everyone can see which way the wind is blowing.

To people who really care about animals, all the finger pointing and accusations of hypocrisy criss-crossing the Atlantic are meaningless. What matters is progress in ending animal suffering.

Sadly, in Canada, we are not making much.