Who regulates the dairy industry?

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The Agenda invited two experts to discuss the welfare standards for cows on dairy farms. Bonnie Den Haan, a dairy farmer and member of Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) and Camille Labchuk, a lawyer for animal rights and Director of Animal Justice went head-to-head on this topic. While both advocates contributed meaningful discussion to the debate, I must side with Camille on this one. Here’s why.

The debate was a response to Labchuk’s presence on the program last week, where she spoke about the policing powers of Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (OSPCA) alongside Brock Professor Kendra Coulter.

“Right now enforcement of laws on farms is complaint based. That is because we don’t have proactive inspections and the reason [for this] is because there are no laws. There are no standards, no regulations, governing the lives of animals on farms – from the minute that they are born to the day they are shipped for transport,” said Labchuk during her initial appearance on The Agenda.

The only laws that exist reference the time that animals are transported to the slaughterhouse and when they are slaughtered. Individual members of the private organization, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, such as Den Haan, are not necessarily to blame. I will say, if the DFO mission statement “To provide leadership and excellence in the production and marketing of Canadian milk,” serves as a guide for what the organization stands for, things aren’t looking good for cows.

In a rebuttal against Labchuk, Den Haan stated a multifaceted protection process for farm animals. The declared first and second layers are the powers of the OSCPA and the Criminal Code. “The third layer is that DFO have a proaction program, which is quality assurance…They have space requirements, water requirements, water spacing, feeding requirements, bedding, they have all of these requirements that you have to meet…DFO have field service staff that enter the farms every two years unannounced (no heads up),” said Den Haan.

Let me first agree with Labchuk’s response to Haan, which really showed the heart of the problem with the industry. The OSPCA only becomes involved after an incident involving an egregious case of abuse. In other words, they do not set out standards for the wellbeing of farm animals. In addition, the proactive program made by DFO is not a law, rather, a set of practices generated (and regulated) by dairy farmers themselves. Curious as to what these practices were, I took it upon myself to check out the DFO website. What is this “science-backed research” dairy farmers are defending?

As per section one of the Code and Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle, within their stalls, cattle must be able to “easily stand up, lie down, adopt normal resting postures, and have visual contact with other cattle”. I question the lack of required exercise (let alone the freedom to walk) for dairy cows when there is further research maintaining exercise as a necessity for dairy cows. Also of question: is visual contact enough for cows to socialize? Research suggests cows, like all species, need social interaction to thrive, grow, flourish and simply survive. The code does not identify ample protocol to maintain proper socialization for cows in their housing or when they are forced to regroup to new stalls (the relocation of cattle based on milking stage, age, health status, etc.).

As per Section two “the early nutritional status of calves has a marked influence on their later productivity,” thus the act outlines strict feeding figures only for calves under six months in age. However, there are no figures representing the amount of food an adult cow requires to maintain “health and vigor”. On the DFO website, there is one study pertaining to feed delivery, but only so far as it concerns a cow’s milk production (see Understanding Behaviour By Anna Wasserman). The code treats the species as an economic commodity and uses umbrella terms such as “welfare” to rationalize their protocol.

Nonetheless, the act upon which DFO regulates itself is not sufficient for animal welfare, especially if only monitored every two years. We can do better. As Labchuk outlined, the program allows for things such as the separation of calves from their mothers within moments of birth. This is, of course, so the mother cow may be milked and inseminated again, in a commodified fashion. Labchuk’s argument for stronger government laws and government inspections, to properly regulate the dairy industry, and hold farmers accountable to the law, is one that is prominent among many animal rights activists.

The dairy industry is subsidized by the Government of Canada – most recently through a $250-million grant program. If dairy farming is so embedded into Canadian economic, political and social culture, it should be held accountable to legal standards. The dairy industry often hides behind phrases such as “we love our animals,” and “if you only came to visit the farm,” but these invitations, at least for me, are empty.

I side with Labchuk because her argument for a more transparent dairy industry upholds the welfare of voiceless farm animals. Well that and, she doesn’t eat her clients. I hope Camille has moo-ved you too.

More information about the industry can be found on the DFO website https://www.milk.org/corporate/main.aspx.

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