Ag Department’s New Chief of Staff Has Close Ties to Ag Industry

Canada’s new agriculture minister has announced his chief of staff: Mary Jean McFall, whose family owns one of Canada’s largest egg producers—Burnbrae Farms—and who used to serve as a board member of Egg Farmers of Ontario.

In an epic Freudian slip noting the appointment, iPolitics inadvertently wrote that McFall had been appointed to the “agriculture industry” rather than the “agriculture ministry.”

Burnbrae has been under fire from animal protection groups in recent years. In 2012, Burnbrae was the subject of a consumer protection complaint filed by Animal Justice for its use of the term “Nestlaid” to describe eggs that were not laid in nests. The complaint alleged that the premium-priced eggs were from hens living in crowded, cramped wire cages that did not meaningfully differ from the industry norm, and that the term was misleading for consumers.

In 2013, a massive Burnbrae supplier in Alberta was exposed on national television after an undercover operative obtained footage from inside the facilities. The footage revealed crowding, untreated injury, neglect, and even dead hens rotting in cages. After reviewing the footage, Canada’s leading avian expert, Professor Ian Duncan, stated: “The high number of trapped, sick and injured birds in the cages is unacceptable.

19 week old chickens transported to Kuku 2Photo by Mercy For Animals Canada, taken in 2013 at a Burnbrae Farms egg supplier

The federal government, via Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, has enormous potential to help the 740 million animals killed for food each year in this country. With a strong animal welfare oriented department—or even a neutral one—great strides could be taken to modernize outdated federal regulations that affect farmed animals.

For example, Canada’s agriculture department is responsible for updating the transport regulations that affect the hundreds of millions of farmed animals who are trucked to slaughter each year. The regulations are so outdated that they are considered the worst in the Western world, allowing animals to be crowded onto trucks for up to 52 hours without food, water or rest.

Late in 2014, Animal Justice led a coalition of animal protection organizations from across the country in renewing calls for the regulations to be updated. The agriculture department was presented with specific recommendations for reform based on the comparatively more progressive European Union’s animal transport laws. The department did not so much as respond.

The federal agriculture department is also responsible for food regulations, including packaging and labelling. Under the Conservative government, vegetarian grain meat company Field Roast was prevented from selling its wildly popular products in Canada because of outdated labelling technicalities. Meanwhile, an Animal Justice complaint filed under the same legislative scheme against Maple Lodge Farms chicken meat company for falsely claiming it treats chickens humanely has gone unanswered.

Somewhat inexplicably, the federal government does not regulate farming conditions, choosing instead to fund the industry’s creation of its own unenforceable guidelines. Humane Society International/Canada has been lobbying the federal government to create a federal farm animal welfare strategy. In a piece for the Hill Times, HSI/Canada’s Sayara Thurston wrote:

The current model of allowing agricultural industries to self-police is not working and is putting millions of animals at risk every day. Over the last few years, Canadians have been rightfully appalled by a slew of undercover investigations detailing what life is like for the majority of the 700 million farm animals raised in Canada each year. HSI/Canada now calls on the government to show leadership and to commit to improving the welfare of farm animals in a meaningful way.

In response, the Egg Farmers of Canada—of which the Egg Farmers of Ontario is a member—joined in a defensive response claiming that poultry and egg products are already being “raised in a safe and humane manner”—a claim that is strongly contradicted by the footage from Burnbrae Farms.

The new Liberal government came into power like a breath of fresh air, offering hope and optimism for more compassionate governing across all sectors. However, the agriculture department is not shaping up to offer much hope to the hundreds of millions of animals negatively impacted by outdated transport and food regulations and the lack of federal leadership on setting and enforcing farmed animal standards.

Canada’s new minister of agriculture has already pledged to “to listen to the man that does the work — the farmer” in evaluating agriculture policy options for the federal government. Let’s hope the appointment of a chief of staff who has close ties to both Burnbrae Farms and the Egg Farmers of Ontario doesn’t mean that federal policy will prioritize the desires of industry over the needs of animals and the public who care about them.