Diner demand for ethical eating continues

By Riana Topan

In Canada, many people may be surprised to learn how few laws are in place to govern the ethical treatment of farmed animals. The federal government regulates how these animals are handled during transportation and slaughter through the Health of Animals Regulations and Safe Food for Canadians Regulations. These apply when animals have left the farm, focusing primarily on food safety and biological health, rather than on animal welfare.

Federal and provincial animal cruelty regulations offer some protections to domestic and wild animals but farmed animals and “generally accepted” agricultural practices are usually exempt from those. Most animal care requirements for farms in Canada are voluntary, even though over 800 million land animals are raised and slaughtered for food each year (not including fish and marine animals). In many cases, these unenforceable standards are written by the industries that profit from raising these animals; the proverbial fox in the hen house.

Upon learning that these laws and practices are out of step with public opinion, some people are reducing their consumption of animal-based food products for ethical reasons. A 2021 report from Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture revealed that 25 per cent of surveyed Canadians considered eliminating beef from their diets in the previous 12 months, and 32 per cent expressed concerns about animal cruelty.

Others, including 70% of respondents in a 2021 poll by Mintel (as reported by the Government of Canada) say that they would be willing to pay more for meat in order for animals to be treated more humanely. This is consistent with a 2017 poll by NRG where 86 per cent of respondents agreed that “restaurants, grocers, and other food companies” should insist on welfare improvements for chickens in their supply chains, even if that results in a higher price for meat. After all, the chickens, pigs, cows, ducks, sheep, and goats in our food system are not unlike the animals many of us share our homes with; they are sentient, complex creatures, capable of feeling emotions.

The trouble is, laws and regulations take a long time to catch up with public opinion, and policy changes critical to progress are often slow to be implemented. That’s why our laws remain decades behind where many consumers would like them to be, and that’s why it continues to be legal to confine animals in small, wire cages or narrow, metal crates, separating them from their babies immediately after birth, mutilating their bodies without adequate pain relief, and slaughtering them with methods like “blunt [force] trauma” (to the cranium) or “maceration” (also called ‘grinding’ or ‘shredding’).

However, the tides are turning. In response to consumer demand, many companies are asking their suppliers to do better in raising the standard of animal care. Over 100 food companies in Canada, from restaurants and retailers to hotels and meal kit companies, have adopted policies to improve animal welfare in their supply chains. Given the level of interest from consumers and investors, companies are now being ranked on their progress in implementing improvements in animal welfare.

There is also a steadily growing demand for more plant-based food options. As a result of this and other developments, researchers at the University of Guelph have noted that overall per capita meat consumption has begun to decline, due to animal welfare, environmental factors, and health concerns.

When restaurant owners and operators can serve foods that are appealing, sustainable, healthy, cost-effective, while also aligning with their guests’ values, it’s clear that making plant-based options more widely available is a win-win. Many food service operations have embraced this attitude and are launching new offerings to get their guests excited about tasty food options that they can feel good about ordering.

This momentum shows no signs of slowing down, and there is every reason to believe that in 2023, businesses will continue to embrace plant-forward options with continuing enthusiasm and strong results for their bottom line.

Riana Topan is a campaign manager with Humane Society International/Canada. She runs the organization’s Forward Food program, which helps institutions across Canada increase their offerings of delicious and nutritious plant-based options that are better for animals, the environment, and human health.