The awkward relationship between the BC SPCA and meat

I’ve always had difficulty with the relationship our society has with animals. Most people I know feel real compassion when companion or wild animals are treated badly or hurt. We donate, run, walk, cycle, and do any number of things to help rescue them, and often go to our local SPCA branch to adopt a new friend who needs a home. For some reason we don’t generally feel the same way about food animals. My take is that standards for treatment of any animal should be exactly the same.

I suspect the difference is that, while we attach emotion to pets due to our forged bonds, most of us view a cut of meat as a product at the supermarket. We’d be horrified if homeless dogs were butchered and packaged in exactly the same way. I understand this dissonance and my point here is not to dissect it or criticise meat consumption with food choices being as personal as politics and religion. My understanding, though, is strained when it comes to supporting large nonprofit organizations whose mission it is to protect all animals. For this reason, I’ve given somewhat tenuous support to the BC SPCA. Despite my misgivings regarding their stance on food animals, I’ve always felt that helping abused, hurt and abandoned animals find homes is laudable work and should be supported. After today, unfortunately my support is over.

Again, this post is not about criticising the consumption of meat, as that’s a completely personal choice. What I’m referring to below, is at best a problematic gap in logic, and at worst hypocrisy with respect to all animals deserving of equal protection in the SPCA’s eyes, seemingly to make it easier to fundraise. I can just no longer support an organization whose sole mandate is the protection of animals, who also serves ethically produced meat (while admittedly providing vegetarian options) at virtually all events or fundraisers. Their somewhat self-serving distinction between animal welfare and rights allows them to pick and choose the level of protection and type of animal to which its afforded. Even if you eat meat, please just consider the following in light of what the SPCA is.

Protecting farm animals by serving meat?

It started with an innocent looking tweet promoting a BC SPCA fundraising gala on November 1st. I was actually originally interested in possibly supporting it, as I thought it might feature vegan, or at least all vegetarian fare. When I read the VanCityBuzz story the tweet linked to, the following passage in particular, caught my eye:

For the event, the animal welfare agency only approached chefs and restaurants that believe in sourcing food – especially meats – that are ethically raised. It’s a value that’s central to its SPCA Certified food program, which will be highlighted throughout the evening.

I’m glad this article highlighted the ‘sourcing of meat that is ethically raised’ because the SPCA’s own announcement, perhaps understanding the apparent ethical conundrum, makes no mention of meat.

After some tweeting to various recent followers and the SPCA, suggesting they ask the SPCA to take meat off this menu, the organization finally tweeted back to me, pointing to their position on serving meat at their events. The key passage from this page is as follows:

With respect to events, the BC SPCA has a policy that outlines that vegetarian (and where possible, vegan) options must be provided at all SPCA events and approved third-party events. The policy also stipulates that when animal products are served, they should be from farms that strive to provide the Five Freedoms, such as SPCA Certified or Certified Organic farms.

I did a lot of searching online and, where I found links to past events, any with food that I found were featuring meat on the menu. What I was left wondering is why they’d pass up an ideal opportunity to demonstrate real compassion for food animals. Wouldn’t it send a stronger message about animal protection to have an evening of all vegetarian or vegan fare? Vancouver now has some great options truly focused on sustainability and animal compassion. Did they even talk to Graze, Heirloom or The Acorn in planning this event?

As I said earlier, the crux of their argument is always that they’re an animal welfare and not animal rights, organization. I just don’t know how the SPCA can have such vastly different standards for companion and food animals. They all feel pain, fear and stress. You don’t have to be an animal rights organization (nor even support veganism) to advocate on behalf of all animals in exactly the same way. In truth, rights versus welfare is largely an emotional distinction. If the SPCA had consistent standards of care for companion and food animals, the difference would be meaningless. Even if the SPCA feels their food animal protection measures are appropriate and that ethical meat production is possible, why not plan events about their work with the least harm and suffering possible?

What do farm animals really want?

I don’t think any of us knows with certainty what an animal wants, but I doubt it’s to be raised and fattened just to feed us. And, don’t be fooled by the images in the promotional video below. Meat could easily meet ‘SPCA certified’ criteria and experience nothing nearly as positive as it suggests.

The fallacy of ethical meat

In asking whether they should be serving meat at their events, consider the term ethical meat, as the SPCA calls it. Sometimes you’ll see the term sustainable meat or humane meat. These are all roughly the same thing; industry labels to make consumers feel better about consumption. How meaningful the distinction is to each of us, again, comes back to how we view food animals personally, and the distinctions we make for them against companion animals. As awareness of large agri-business animal care standards grows, survival of the meat industry is dependent on people feeling as if animals were, at the very least, raised free range and organic before they were slaughtered.

On first blush, the SPCA appears to be doing something to help people purchase meat from producers who treat the animals humanely, and I don’t doubt that their efforts are well-intentioned at some level.

From their certification page:

To date, standards have been developed for Egg-laying chickens, broiler (meat) chickens, turkeys, dairy cattle, beef cattle (includes veal production), pigs and sheep. To meet SPCA Certified standards (derived from UK standards), animals must have freedom from hunger and thirst, pain, injury, disease, distress, discomfort and must be allowed to express behaviours that promote well-being.

So that animals meet the above criteria to be SPCA Certified, producers must ensure the following conditions are met. Never mind that no standards or inspection mechanism could ever ensure any animal – companion or food – is free from any of those things. The headlines below are the SPCA standards and below each of those are just the most basic of questions regarding their enforcement and specifics for me. When I consider each of them, I have simple evaluation criteria. If you wouldn’t expose your pet to the standard the SPCA is setting for food animals, is it humane or ethical?

  1. Egg-laying hens must be free from cages

    Battery cages Assuming this refers to battery cages, this still doesn’t address mass confinement. Chicks and hens can easily be free from cages and still crammed by the thousands into long metal barns (the kind you see all through the Fraser Valley), and this does nothing to address chick-sorting conveyer belts, debeaking and declawing. In fact, the BC SPCA wrote a lengthy piece on this very issue in 2012 and seems to be just fine with ‘free run hens’ in just such massive barns, or alternatively slighly more roomy cages. Even if you think these measures provide enough freedom, keep in mind that any intensive livestock operation barns will be dealing with ammonia, disease and other issues associated with confinement. Any confinement makes antibiotic-free chicken more difficult to produce, since the former requires the latter to fix its problems.

  2. Pregnant pigs must be free from confinement in gestation stalls and farrowing crates

    Pig gestation crates This one is interesting, as the industry is already moving to a new code of practice banning the use of gestation crates. The SPCA has hardly been at the forefront of getting this barbaric practice outlawed. And, particularly barbaric it is, as the gestation-farrowing crate continuum has often resulted in dead piglets, with mothers rolling over on their young while feeding them. In fact, this standard seems more like bandwagonism than leadership to change the status quo.

  3. Lameness in farm animals must be assessed and addressed

    Painful hoof How is lameness to be assessed and addressed? While it’s fairly easy to see if an animal is having trouble moving, it’s far more challenging to deal with it. What does ‘addressed’ mean? Bulldozed and buried? Ground up and fed back to other animals? Something else? Both of these are common practices for animals that are no longer of any use. If your dog had a limp you’d likely take her to the vet and try every possible treatment you could afford. The solution for food animals is far more economically compact.

  4. Animal environments are designed to promote comfort and healthy social interactions

    It would be nice to know what this actually means. What are the standards for each breed of food animal? Pigs, for example, naturally develop separate socializing, nesting and potty areas, and have very complex social lives. I’m not sure how any confinement system could possibly address that, but assuming meat production isn’t going anywhere, I’d truly love to see it.

  5. Animals must not be fed antibiotics, ionophores or hormones for growth enhancement

    Inspections are to be carried out annually. Is that enough to determine that animals are being raised as humanely and healthily as possible? Are the producers given a lot of advance notice for inspections, or are they random? Doping cyclists were pretty good at providing clean samples when they knew when ‘random’ would occur.

  6. What about veal?

    Typical veal crates This is my extra question about the most gaping void of logic I see in their standards. I note they’ve drafted standards for veal, but don’t deal with the issue in their specifics above. How are they ensuring veal aren’t confined? By its very definition, veal production demands intense confinement for calves, since the tender flesh cannot be produced if the animal is allowed to move.

I wanted to see specifics on the above standards, but I’d have to be a producer and sign up for an account. While certified organic meat must meet at least some standards, including annual inspection, there is no oversight that I’ve been able to find, that verifies free-range (outdoor) and free-run (indoor) animals. Frankly, if an animal can even see daylight, its post-slaughter packaging may well have a free-range label. There is no rigour that I can find demonstrating this standard is enforceable in any meaningful way. Read more on the humane farming fallacy from Liberation BC.

And finally, at its simplest, when food animals are being raised only to be fattened and killed, can you really call it ethical? I can’t. For $200 a plate, in particular, apparently the BC SPCA can. At least when your marketing/fundraising efforts and your advocacy/protection efforts are at odds, it’s easier to do when you decide some animals are more important than others.