Canada sets the bar with new Codes of Practice for farm animal care

Codes put producers on the same page and provide transparency to break down barriers between the farm and the consumer.

The state of farm animal care is a bit like the state of Missouri. “Show me” are words the public is asking more often, and agriculture is expected to provide answers.

Now, rather than just saying they are doing good things, livestock producers and their industries in Canada can point to specific, newly updated Codes of Practice that detail how responsible farm animal care and handling is carried out.

The new codes couldn’t come at a better time, says Jackie Wepruk, General Manager of the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC). Both the rate of progress and the level of expectations in farm animal care have ratcheted up significantly in recent years.

“The new codes provide a huge piece of the puzzle to keep us on the same page with best practices and to address domestic and international market expectations,” says Wepruk. “The codes serve as educational tools, the foundation of assessment programs and reference materials for regulations. It has been a tremendous benefit for all of us involved in farm animal welfare to be working together on this.”

Broad input, science-based

NFACC is a partnership of diverse stakeholders, including livestock producer organizations, created to share information and work together on farm animal care and welfare. It has helped lead the development of updated codes for a range of livestock species, with a new dairy code launched in 2009 and a number of others slated for completion over the next several years.

The dairy code has been distributed to dairy producers and their organizations across the country. Updated Codes of Practice for beef cattle, horses, mink, pigs, ranched fox and sheep are under development.

The process for each code takes about two-and-a-half years and involves seven steps including initiation, a scientific committee review of the science pertaining to priority welfare issues, code development, peer review, draft code completion and public consultation, followed by publication.

“It’s a very thorough, inclusive and methodical process, which is by design,” says Wepruk. “For the codes to be effective and accepted, we have aimed for a process that is transparent, collaborative, science-based, consensus-based and participative.”

Everyone from farmers and industry organizations, to scientists and other technical experts, to animal welfare advocates are all encouraged to provide input into the process at all key steps. A major emphasis is placed on addressing expectations of domestic and international markets, in a world where animal care standards are anticipated to become increasingly scrutinized in everything from trade agreements to the demands of retailers.

Producers and their organizations in particular are front and centre in all key stages because they are the ones who ultimately must implement and live with the codes, says Wepruk. “At the end of the day, the codes need to work for producers or they won’t work at all.”

Practical focus

To meet that goal, the codes are “outcome-focused.”

Where appropriate they provide flexibility in farm management so long as the requirements for animal care and handling are well looked after.

“We also want the codes to be very farmer friendly in terms of being very clear on what is required,” says Wepruk. “A big focus of the code development process has been to clearly distinguish between requirements for care and recommended best practices. They’re not one in the same and producers need to see where they have options to choose the best approaches for their operation.”

The just-released Dairy Code includes sections on accommodation, housing and handling facilities; feed and water; health and welfare management, husbandry practices, transportation and euthanasia. Codes for other livestock are expected to follow a similar template.

The codes in and of themselves are not mandatory, Wepruk notes. At the same time though, producers should be clear that many of the requirements included are in fact based on regulations that need to be followed.

The codes ultimately will represent a national understanding of animal care requirements and recommended best practices, prepared with the input and support of scientific experts and by consensus of the diverse groups involved, says Wepruk.

“Consensus doesn’t always mean complete agreement,” she cautions.

“But it does involve seeking a decision with which everyone is reasonably comfortable. Part of this means giving everyone a fair opportunity to be heard, and exploring issues to the point where the group is satisfied with the result. We believe this has worked well with the dairy code now developed, and what we’ve learned in that process will help us on all the other Codes.”

Need for regular updates

While the Codes of Practice are a big puzzle piece, they are not the only piece, says Wepruk. As expectations continue to rise for livestock industries to follow transparent standards for animal care, she expects greater need to provide on-farm assessments. At the same time, while having a full suite of updated Codes of Practice brings Canada up to date in the short term, there is a need for both funding and process to be established for regular updating of the codes. “Right now what has been accomplished has been with specific one-time funds. We need to look beyond that to create a sustainable system for code development.