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Animal-rights activist Anita Krajnc gives water to a pig in a truck, an action that has landed her in the Ontario Court of Justice, charged with criminal mischief. The case has given activists an opportunity to raise questions about the meat industry in Canada.

Elli Garlin/The Canadian Press

On the surface, it looked like an act of mercy. After a truckful of pigs on their way to slaughter stopped in front of her on a July morning last year, a Toronto woman took out a water bottle and fed the pigs with it, the large swine lapping eagerly at the bottle.

But within moments, things turned ugly.

In video of the incident, the truck driver approaches the woman and asks her to stop. She does not. "What do you have in that water?" he asks. She replies that it's water. "How do I know?" he responds, then calls the police. "Call Jesus," she quips, before cooing at the pigs: "I love you, babies."

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That 2015 dust-up resulted in a criminal-mischief charge against the woman, Anita Krajnc, a long-time animal-rights activist, and touched off a firestorm of controversy that was on full display this week at an Ontario Court of Justice hearing.

To the pork-farming industry, Ms. Krajnc and other protesters who feed their pigs even when asked not to, pose a safety risk in a food system that is otherwise strictly regulated. Supporters of Ms. Krajnc, meanwhile, argue she was acting in the public interest.

Outside the Burlington, Ont., courthouse Thursday, dozens of activists gathered in support of Ms. Krajnc, many of them wearing "I am Anita" stickers and "Stop Cruelty. Go Vegan" T-shirts.

Others served vegan meals – "eggless egg salad sandwich" – while strategizing on the most effective hashtags (they settled on #PigTrial). Others still fiddled with a virtual-reality machine "to experience what it's like being in a slaughterhouse" – an exhibit Ms. Krajnc's lawyers hope to introduce into court as evidence.

But beyond the spectacle, the case gave the activists an opportunity to raise serious questions about the state of animal welfare in food production. It also raised questions about the safety risks to our food system in a world where activists increasingly take matters into their own hands. Above all, it exploded into full public view the long-mounting tensions between activists and food producers in this country, over who gets to decide how food is produced.

"The pig trial is supposedly about me being on trial for giving thirsty pigs water, but what's really happened is I think the factory-farm industry is being put on trial," Ms. Krajnc said Thursday. Ms. Krajnc's group, Pig Save, has for years held "vigils" outside of Toronto-area slaughterhouses to "bear witness" to animals being killed.

In his questioning of Eric Van Boekel, the owner of the pigs in question, Ms. Krajnc's lawyer, James Silver, spent hours Thursday asking detailed questions about the farmer's operation. Throughout the testy exchanges, Mr. Van Boekel and Mr. Silver jostled over the use of antibiotics on animals, the amount of space granted to each animal, and the types of equipment used in transporting them.

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The intent, Ms. Krajnc's other lawyer, Gary Grill, said, is to put on display "the evils of the pork industry in particular in this case, but the larger meat industry in general."

But to Mr. Van Boekel and others in the farming industry, the real concern is around food safety, and what the farmer described in court Thursday as a "contaminant" being placed in his truck without his permission. Farmers and animal-transport drivers undergo training to ensure the animals are handled safely and in accordance with strict procedures.

"If I go to a dog in Toronto and ask the owner to feed them something, and they say no. If I do it anyways, I have committed an offence," he told the court.

Amy Cronin, an Ontario pork farmer and chair of Ontario Pork, which represents about 1,600 farmers in the province, said this is not the first such incident.

"I completely understand the trucker's frustration. He has a responsibility to get those animals from the farm safely to the processing plant," she said.

Ms. Cronin said that activists such as Ms. Krajnc who criticize often do so with little agricultural or animal-welfare knowledge. Meanwhile, the regulations followed by farmers are developed alongside animal-welfare experts and overseen by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

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She and others pointed out that what may appear to the average person as cruel – such as withdrawing feed from pigs before slaughter – is designed in part with animal welfare in mind. Pigs that are transported and slaughtered with full stomachs not only produce lower-quality pork, but are also more prone to sickness, vomiting and in-transit death. Ms. Krajnc told reporters Thursday that members of her group not only give water to animals, but sometimes also food, such as watermelon.

Peter Sankoff, a professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in animal law, said that the trial is an opportunity to bring to light questions about whether the transport rules set out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency need to be overhauled.

The CFIA's rules, Prof. Sankoff said, are "amongst the worst in the world." He pointed to regulations that allow pigs to be in transit for up to 36 hours without water whereas in Europe, the limit is eight.

Meanwhile, the National Farm Animal Care Council, which creates codes of conduct for farmers in this country that aren't legal requirements but reflect industry standards, are already working on updating transport codes.

"I believe the only way we'll make meaningful change is to have these sorts of matters tried in public," Prof. Sankoff said.

In an e-mailed statement, the CFIA declined to comment, citing a policy of not speaking on legal matters that are still before the courts.

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The case returns to court Oct. 3.

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