Poultry workers opened the doors of a chicken truck at a Toronto slaughterhouse in December, 2008, to find that nearly 1,500 birds had frozen to death in sub-zero temperatures during their final journey from the farm.
At about the same time, 16 neglected horses - animals so emaciated they had not developed winter coats - were sent to a meat factory in Lacombe, Alta., in an unheated truck as the thermometer dipped to minus 12 C. Government inspectors who witnessed their arrival took note of the incident but let the transport company off with a simple warning.
Those and other anecdotes are included in a report by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) to be released later this week that looks at the conditions in which animals intended for Canadian dinner plates are transported - often for the last time.
The study, which was based on inspection reports filed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) between Oct. 9, 2008, and Jan. 9, 2009, was initiated in response to the listeriosis crisis of 2008 that killed 22 people. It finds that Canadian standards for the transport of animals are significantly weaker than those of other jurisdictions, including Europe and the United States.
Under CFIA policy, an inspection is warranted if 1 per cent of a shipment of broiler chickens arrives dead, whereas the U.S. threshold is 0.5 per cent. The report also found that the CFIA standards are not strenuously enforced.
"A lot of MPs were asking how many meat inspectors were hired during the listeriosis outbreak and it started to get us questioning how many animal inspectors are there," Melissa Matlow, the report's lead author, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. It's an important question, "not only from an animal welfare perspective, which is what our organization cares the most about, but from a food-safety perspective."
In fact, much evidence suggests that food-borne illnesses are readily transmitted among animals that are crammed into trucks and train cars.
"When the animals are packed more closely, the opportunity for bacteria to pass from one animal to another is obviously increased," said Carlton Gyles, who studies animal-borne diseases at the University of Guelph. "There have been studies looking at things like salmonella that can be passed by animals during transportation. So that could increase the chances of contamination of meat."
Canadians also want to know that the meat they eat comes from animals that did not suffer unduly, Ms. Matlow said. Statistics that the animal rights organization obtained from CFIA indicate that two million to three million animals die during transport every year and another 11 million arrive at their destination diseased or injured.
"We have to ask the question, how many of these animals [that die in transit] are ending up on people's dinner plates?" Ms. Matlow said. "If there is only one inspector for every two million animals slaughtered for food every year in this country, how can they possibly ensure this isn't happening?"
CIFA says its inspectors see the animals both before and after slaughter and they would move quickly to shut down a plant that attempted to process animals that were dead on arrival - which is strictly prohibited by federal regulations. But they also admit they cannot be in every meat plant at all times.
The greatest animal suffering observed in the study occurred on long journeys - especially in freezing weather. Canadian cows can be in transit for 52 hours without food, water and a rest break. In Europe, the standard is 12 hours.
Geoff Urton, the farm animal welfare co-ordinator at the British Columbia SPCA, said Canada's regulations are more than 30 years old and need to be updated. "There is really good evidence that the current standards are not adequate to actually protect the animals," said Mr. Urton.
Paul Mayers, the associate vice-president of programs at the CFIA, said his agency is preparing to rewrite the rules on animal transport.
But he said the changes will be less about setting time limits for transportation than an overall effort to keep animals healthy. "What we're talking about," Mr. Mayers said, "is achieving the outcome in relation to the individual species as opposed to arbitrary time limits, focusing instead on the animal itself."
As for the fact that many transporters who break the rules get off with a warning, he said the CFIA uses a graduated approach to enforcement, leaving prosecution - in most cases - for repeat violators.
Transporters and the slaughterhouses rely on animals for their income, Mr. Mayers said. "So we certainly see that the vast majority of Canadian producers and transporters are strongly committed to treating animals humanely."
KEY FINDINGS OF THE REPORT
1. Unacceptable numbers of animals, particularly chickens, die during transport.
- This most often happens when the birds are moved over long distances and in inclement weather.
- 2 to 3 million: The number of animals that arrive dead every year at Canadian slaughterhouses.
2. Animals are transported in overcrowded conditions.
- Transporters pack between seven and 16 chickens into crates that are a half-metre square, and cows have arrived at processing plants with sores on their backs from brushing against the roof of the truck.
- 6% to 89%: The increase in number of animals covered with salmonella after being kept in crowded conditions for 40 minutes, according to a Texas Tech University study.
3. Severely injured and sick animals are transported in contravention of federal regulations.
- Animals are arriving at slaughterhouses and auctions emaciated, weak, crippled and with severe injuries.
- 2: The number of sheep a farmer brought to be slaughtered at Princeton Meat Packers in Woodstock, Ont., that had injuries so severe, they should never have been transported.
4. Severely compromised animals are transported and left to suffer for prolonged periods, sometimes days.
- The World Society for the Protection of Animals says many incidents may be in violation of federal or provincial animal cruelty laws.
- 58: The length of time, in hours, one crippled cow was left alive on top of a pile of dead animals in Lethbridge, Alta.
5. A shortage of trained animal welfare inspectors, particularly veterinarians, puts animal health and welfare at risk.
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors are not authorized to euthanize animals or relieve their suffering for humane reasons, and few animal inspectors are veterinarians or trained to address animal welfare problems during transport.
- 329: The number of animal inspectors employed by the CFIA across Canada to supervise 772 facilities that slaughter 700 million animals annually. There are also 980 meat inspectors.
6. CFIA's reporting and enforcement are often weak and inconsistent.
- Animals are transported in clear violation of regulations (for example, goats transported in feed bags, rabbits transported in the trunk of a car, animals tied up and under covers without air holes) and inspectors respond by giving warnings or educational pamphlets.
- $221,800: The total amount of individual fines, ranging from $500 to $2,000, levied in 2006 across the country for violations of the health of animal regulations.
7. Animals suffer as a result of poor driver training.
- Drivers appear to be unaware of regulations, including their right, indeed, their responsibility, to refuse to transport an injured animal. Some drivers didn't even know how many animals they had aboard their truck.
- 20 hours: In one case, the number of hours a severely injured horse spent in transit.