Silencing whistle-blowers on farms conceals animal and employee abuse

Lisa A. Kramer, PhD

Professor of Finance, University of Toronto
Research Fellow, Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR), University of Toronto (Republished Feb. 12, 2021)

Silencing whistle-blowers on farms conceals animal and employee abuse

Canadian agricultural businesses cannot compete on the world stage if consumers do not trust the safety of their products. (Piqsels)
Lisa Kramer, University of Toronto

It will take time for authorities to determine whether the recent death of a woman outside a slaughterhouse in Burlington, Ont., was an accident or homicide. We don’t need to wait for the outcome, however, to know why the animal welfare protester died and what must change to prevent future harm — not only to activists, but also to consumers and businesses.

The events that led to Regan Russell’s death were set in motion last month in the Ontario legislature, when lawmakers passed a sweeping “ag-gag” law that prevents journalists and other investigators from entering animal agriculture facilities to expose illegal activities such as animal cruelty, employee mistreatment or health and safety violations.

Days later, Russell was protesting this same law on public property when she was struck and killed by the driver of a truck transporting pigs in what seems a cruel twist of fate.

Regan Russell is seen in this undated photo. Animal Justice

Canadians prefer openness

Canadians certainly have an interest in ensuring activities that take place on farms, on transport trucks and in slaughterhouses adhere to our laws and to our sense of decency. Opinions are strikingly aligned on the matter.

In a June 2020 survey of more than 1,000 Ontario residents, 84 per cent said they believe conditions in meat-processing plants should be transparent to the public. Similar numbers said whistle-blowers should be able to expose problems on farms and in food-production facilities related to working conditions, animal abuse and food safety.

But when the newly enacted ag-gag law, Bill 156, comes into force it will ensure the opposite. Just like a similar law introduced in Alberta last year, Ontario’s new legislation will prevent whistle-blowing employees from collecting the type of video evidence that in the past has led to the prosecution and conviction of lawbreakers across Canada, including agricultural workers abusing animals.

This law will also interfere with workers’ rights advocates and journalists who seek to uncover evidence that employees are being mistreated, which these days could prevent authorities from being made aware of cases where slaughterhouse workers, who already face a high risk of COVID-19 infection, may be forced to work without adequate personal protective equipment.

A worker walks into a Cargill meat-processing factory in Chambly, Que., in May 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Likewise, this law could prevent employees from exposing information that would help public health authorities pinpoint the origin of pathogens that cause avian flu, swine flu and other infectious diseases that are known to arise in animal confinement facilities.

Additionally, this law will prevent people like Russell from exercising their legal rights to peacefully protest on public property, a right protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In her decades of social activism, Russell had exercised that right by advocating for a wide range of social causes and was especially vocal in her opposition to the mistreatment of animals raised as food.

Consumers, businesses look to future

Because many people share Russell’s concerns about animal welfare, and also worry about the large environmental footprint and health risks associated with eating meat, demand for plant-based products has rapidly increased in recent years. Many food-production firms are shifting away from animal-based products, diminishing the purported role for ag-gag laws.

The CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, Michael McCain, projected in 2018 that the tastes of consumers would continue drifting away from meat, signalling his company’s intention to continue satisfying those tastes by producing more plant-based proteins. “We view ourselves as a protein company,” he stated.

The following year, he announced plans to build a $310 million plant-protein food processing facility.

Maple Leaf Foods is not alone in evolving away from animal agriculture. Some of the largest meat-production companies in the world, including colossal Tyson Foods, have introduced plant-based products to their menus of offerings.

One of the hottest new stocks of 2019 was the vegan food-production company Beyond Meat. And the newest plant-based meat company to go public, Canadian firm The Very Good Food Company, saw its share price surge above its initial value in its early days of trading last month.

The federal government stands ready to encourage businesses to adapt to consumers’ preferences. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced about $100 million in funding for a Winnipeg facility that “will be a world leader in plant-based proteins, and will create good jobs in a fast-growing field.”

Riders and their horses pass through a canola field near Cremona, Alta., in July 2016. The federal government is helping finance a new agricultural production plant in Winnipeg that turns peas and canola into protein powders for the food industry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

This adds to Canada’s Protein Industries Supercluster, an ambitious federal program that aims to add more than $4.5 billion and 4,500 jobs to the Canadian economy over 10 years by supporting crops used in the plant-based foods market. It’s notable that a key intention of the protein supercluster is to improve transparency on Canadian farms, something Ontario’s Bill 156 directly erodes.

Backward-looking policies have no place in our country. Canadian businesses cannot compete on the world stage if consumers do not trust the safety of their products.

But the opacity enshrined in ag-gag laws destroys consumer confidence by its very nature, to the detriment of Canadian companies, their employees and their customers. It will also hide the cruel treatment of animals and workers, which the factory farming industry would do well to eradicate.

Regan Russell died trying to spread that message. I, for one, received it. The ag-gag law must be repealed.The Conversation

Lisa Kramer, Professor of Finance, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Competition grows for China’s food imports

African swine fever, bilateral trade tensions and COVID-19 have reinforced China's push to diversify its supply chains, according to the USDA. Reuters photo

NEW YORK, Feb. 12, 2021 (LPP): China is diversifying its agricultural trading partners and that will force traditional suppliers to employ new tactics, says the United States Department of Agriculture. “In contrast to the past, when the United States was among just a handful of suppliers, the United States now faces growing international competition in China,” stated the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service in a recent report. “This competition will become even more fierce in the future as China widens its import base and domestic food and ag products become more sophisticated.”

Canada is also facing intensified competition in that important market, said Neil Townsend, chief market analyst with FarmLink Marketing Solutions. “It’s something we should be concerned about,” he said. He recalls looking in awe at the vegetable oil section of a grocery store during a recent visit to China. “It’s something to behold. It’s like an entire wall of every oil you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” said Townsend. Most of the oils contained some sort of front-of-package health claim. If one of those claims suddenly takes hold it can quickly tilt demand away from a product like Canadian canola oil, he said.

According to the USDA, China’s diversification trend began in earnest during the last decade but has really intensified the past couple of years due to the rising middle class and its appetite for an increasingly diverse and affordable diet. African swine fever, bilateral trade tensions and COVID-19 have reinforced China’s push to diversify its supply chains, stated the USDA. The Canadian Meat Council agrees with that assessment. “Over the past two years, China has been diversifying its list of suppliers because of the huge protein deficit cause by African swine fever, which has devastated their pig herds,” the group said in an email.

“The increased buy is to secure supply and manage inflation.” Unfortunately, Canada’s sales of pork and beef to China were down considerably in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The USDA said China’s central government committed to “expand diverse import channels” in its 2020 agriculture policy document. It has used similar language in that same document over the past five years. But this time it did not explicitly mention the One Belt One Road countries. “This omission may signal a return to a broader approach to diversification,” said the USDA.

China’s General Administration of Customs has approved at least 100 new agricultural products from various countries in 2019 and 2020. Bilateral agreements with countries like Australia, Peru and Chile have facilitated some of the new approvals. China is now importing beef from Argentina, chicken from Brazil, wheat from France and corn from Ukraine. That is causing increased competition for traditional exporters like the U.S. and Canada. “In order to do business in this competitive landscape, U.S. exporters should consider taking steps to differentiate their products from the mainstream,” said the USDA.

It suggests that exporters should focus on the superior quality, safety and sustainability of U.S. products. “As local consumers are increasingly focused on health and nutrition, they are willing to pay more for agricultural products featuring these characteristics,” said the USDA. Townsend said that may work for products like beef and pork but he doesn’t think it will have much impact with grains, oilseeds and pulses. “Brand Canada doesn’t seem to be the force that it was 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. Townsend thinks Canada is missing that “one voice” like the Canadian Wheat Board to promote Canadian crops abroad.

He also noted that institutions like the Canadian Grain Commission are under attack by grain companies who want the CGC to stop being a service provider. “Everybody is trying to weaken the CGC,” he said. Townsend believes that will further erode Canada’s reputation as a provider of quality grain products. Grain Growers of Canada was contacted for this article but did not respond. Contact