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National framework, Codes and assessments fuel progress in farm animal care

Posted: October 23, 2013

Major building blocks are in place to advance Canada in managing the rising interest and expectations around farm animal welfare.

The latest progress was highlighted at the 2013 National Farm Animal Care Conference in Ottawa, which brought together 140 participants from across the agriculture and food value chain as well as others with an interest in farm animal care. The conference was hosted by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC).

Several conference speakers recognized NFACC as pivotal to Canada’s success, with its nationally coordinated, multi-stakeholder, consensus-based approach. “Globally, NFACC is a unique model that provides credibility, balance and a process Canada can be proud of,” says Dr. Tina Widowski, Director of the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph. “We see this first hand and also hear this reinforced when we talk with our international colleagues.”

A key initiative championed through NFACC is the process for developing Codes of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals. Codes of Practice are species-specific guidelines designed to be scientifically informed, practical and reflective of societal expectations relative to farm animal care. Each Code is a major, multi-year undertaking. Nine Codes have been initiated in recent years, with five completed, two near completion and two more recently started.

The Code of Practice for beef cattle was released in August. “Updating the Code has been a very important step,” says Ryder Lee, Manager of Federal Provincial Relations, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), and member of the Beef Code Development Committee. “It reinforces how we do things and the importance of animal care to both the animals and their owners. The Code also provides a basis for the conversation we have with the people we sell to and the people they sell to, to show how we care for our animals.”

Animal welfare organizations participating in the Code Development Process believe that it’s important to work directly with industry and other stakeholders toward practical solutions that support the shared interests of all involved. “It has been a key achievement of the Code process to be able to bring all these groups together and have these conversations face to face,” says Geoff Urton, Manager of Stakeholder Relations for the BC SPCA. “It’s clear we’re making progress. Even other welfare groups not known for heaping praise on industry have had positive things to say about the Codes.”

A critical part of the Code development process has been a science review of priority welfare issues carried out by a Scientific Committee of leading scientists with relevant expertise. “Having this component ensures the Codes are informed by the latest scientific knowledge and brings strong credibility to the process,” says Widowski, who has served on three Code Scientific Committees.

The livestock industries who have participated also see clear benefits. “At the end of the day if we say ‘Is it practical? Is it useful?’ the answer is ‘yes,’” says Fred Baker, sheep producer and member of the Sheep Code Development Committee. “Certainly as a sheep industry, the feeling is the Code is going to provide our sector with a good, comprehensive guide for animal care.”

The next step is the Animal Care Assessment Framework (ACAF) – a tool that provides a basis for industry groups to develop species-specific assessment programs to demonstrate that the Codes are being followed. The ACAF provides a common approach to program development that facilitates consistent communications along the value chain and between commodity groups. This also enhances the credibility of assessment programs developed according to the framework.

“We have heard ‘trust me doesn’t cut it anymore’ in today’s environment and it’s important to have a credible way to not only say what we’re doing but prove it,” says Caroline Ramsay, Coordinator for the ACAF with NFACC. “The ACAF is designed to provide that assurance through a nationally-coordinated common approach.”

The dairy industry test piloted the ACAF, utilizing the framework in developing a Canadian dairy animal care assessment program. “Our producers have been very supportive,” says Ron Maynard, dairy producer and Vice President, Dairy Farmers of Canada. “We can better manage what we can measure and this program will be a tool to do that. It provides a basis for benchmarking to support management decisions both at an industry level and an individual producer level. This promotes continual improvement.”

NFACC, the lead organization for farm animal care in Canada, has 29 partner associations including government, farm animal industries, the veterinary community, animal welfare organizations, retail and food service and other allied groups with an interest in farm animal care. More information on NFACC and the conference is available at www.nfacc.ca.

Funding for the Codes of Practice is provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) through the Agricultural Flexibility Fund, as part of Canada’s Economic Action Plan.