Human relations with animals




Strengths and Weaknesses

Framing solutions




Financing the transition


Humans are, of course, animals.  We  have varied and complex relations with animals, wild and domesticated, but clearly domestic (and to a lesser degree,  wild) animals are deeply embedded in human culture. And animals are very affected by humans in multiple ways, positively and negatively. There is a broad and deep literature on human-animal relations (cf. Acampora, 2010; Marvin and McHugh, 2014; Lloro-Bidart and  Banschbach, 2019), from the utilitarian interpretation that drives much of the economic focus on farm animals, to the indigenous rejection of the common European view that humans sit above nature and other animals.

Here the focus is related to how state interventions mediate the relationship between animals and human food. Some aspects of our relations with animals are codified in law, others are not.  Animals as food is an increasingly contested terrain, particularly for many farmers and eaters. Also significant is farm relations with wild animals, viewed by many as nuisance and economic threats (see Goal 5, Wildlife protection and species at risk).

Some of our relationship with other animals can be addressed directly with government instruments, some indirectly.  Standard setting, whether public or private, also appears to be a viable strategy for shifting attitudes and practices.  While many dimensions of human-animal relations can not be regulated, there is a role for the state in promoting culture change in this area.  It is clear that the general culture of care for animals in the general population has encouraged shifts in the food industry and the question remains how that can be further advanced in an orderly way.


Under the Canadian constitution, animals are considered property, so the provinces have primary regulatory authority. Some, like Alberta, have legislation with specific provisions for farm animals, others have more general provisions. Some reference federal regulations (see below), some participate in federal-provincial agreements regarding enforcement. 

However, some dimensions of animal protection are addressed under the federal Criminal Code, and the Health of Animals Act and the Safe Food for Canadians Act have elements governing issues such as farm animal transport and rules in slaughter facilities. Some food label claims related to animal rearing and welfare are addressed under the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations, although the use of many terms is still governed by general fraud provisions as opposed to specific rules.  Private and third party voluntary codes of practice have also been in play since at least the 1980s, in part to address the deficiencies of governmental approaches, in part as a strategy to assure consumers that farmers care about animals. All this, as in many other areas of the food system, creates a patchwork of rules and uneven coverage across the country.

Strengths and weaknesses (adapted from Bradley and MacRae, 2010; Animal Protection Index)

Given that domesticated animals are considered private property under the law, governments are only willing to intervene to a limited extent on human-animal relations.  Thus, the Canadian legislative regime is weak, particularly when compared with standards in some European jurisdictions. Dating back  to the 1890s, but infrequently updated, Canada’s farm animal welfare legislation is designed to prohibit animal cruelty, neglect and practices that cause unnecessary suffering. Historically, Canadian law did not, for the most part, proscribe positive obligations (‘‘thou shall’’) towards domestic animals, instead focusing on negative obligations (‘‘thou shall not’’), found in the Criminal Code and some provincial animal welfare statutes. The Criminal Code also does not specifically name all typically farmed species. Positive rules governing farm animal welfare are, for the most part, found in voluntary, privately-developed codes and standards. On a positive note, section 445(1)-(2) of the Criminal Code has suffering as  separate from pain and injury, and recognizes to some extent biological needs, as Section 446 makes it an offence to not provide adequate food, water, shelter and care.

Some modest improvements to the animal welfare system were made in 2019, with amendments to the  Health of Animals regulations  providing for longer rest times and shorter hours of transport for many animals.  The federal government also banned the import of shark fins.

Provinces with animal welfare statutes employ a standard formula with a prohibition against causing distress, unless it is in accordance with generally accepted management practices, such as those used in farming. The legislation in BC, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec is seen to be stronger than other provinces. Quebec's An Act to Improve the Legal Situation for Animals has replaced former animal welfare provisions in the Animal Health Protection Act, and states that ‘animals are not things but rather sentient beings with biological needs’. This challenges the notion of animals as property. The Act also amends the Civil Code so that it now states that animals are sentient (Lee-Anderson, 2021).

On the negative side, many provinces have implemented, or are considering, Ag Gag laws.  These are common in the US, and are a response to interventions by animal welfare activists. Alberta has amended existing trespass laws to include prohibitions against entering animal production and processing facilities under false premises.  Ontario has done similarly and has also included provisions against interfering with animals in transit.  These interventions are, however, being challenged in  court by animal justice organizations.  PEI amended its Animal Health Act in Dec. 2020 to make it an offense to cause animals to escape.  MB and QC may also introduce Ag Gag laws (Lee-Anderson, 2021).

In Canada, as elaborated by Bradley and MacRae (2010), most private standards are primarily industry-driven, voluntary ‘‘guidelines’’ for producers.  They set engineering standards for animal (and soon fish) care, such as minimum space requirements, lighting, and temperature criteria.  The exceptions are standards created by animal welfare organizations and those embedded in sustainable standards, such as those of the organic sector or Local Food Plus.  These non-industry standards remain, however, marginal  since probably less than 2% of Canadian farmers use them.

In 1980, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS) began the development of private Codes with the Recommended Code of Practice for Handling of Poultry from Hatchery to Slaughterhouse. Industry was, however, involved out of fear that if they weren't government or the humane sector would develop  more onerous standards than they would find acceptable (note that similar attitudes were part of the development of the early Environmental Farm Plans).  For its part, the humane sector wanted to maintain legitimacy with producers and their organizations, and to ensure that the Codes would actually be implemented. From 1993, a quasi-governmental body called the Canadian Agri-Food Research Council (CARC) took over Code development. Each individual Code had a Code Development Committee, usually including, amongst others, the national commodity group concerned, animal welfare scientists, a representative from the CFHS, government representatives from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and later the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Input was also provided by CARC’s Expert Committee on Farm Animal Welfare and Behavior (ECFAWB). Whether due to lack of interest, internal disagreement, or lack of institutional resources, progress on the Codes was slow. In 2001, CARC asked the federal government for an increase in funding and was turned down. Government support for the Codes was waning, and CARC soon disbanded. Industry interest remained and NFACC was officially established in 2005, with many industry members of the ECFAWB simply moved over to the newly formed NFACC. While the NFACC codes have modestly raised the bar on animal welfare, the NFACC is primarily an industry response to market demands, and the threat of regulation, so takes a limited approach to animal welfare and code development (see Framing Solutions).

From the beginning, the Codes were not intended to set best practices for animal welfare. The Codes explicitly state that they are educational tools and not standards. However, the Codes have been used to determine acceptable practices in animal cruelty investigations and are being used as the basis for both legislated minimum standards and private auditable standards. The Canada Agricultural Review Tribunal, an independent appeal body for issued notices of a range of food system violations, including transport of animals violations, is also using the Codes to represent standards of action. Six provinces – British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Saskatchewan – reference the NFACC Codes in their animal protection laws, but not necessarily with comparable status.

Perhaps because the NFACC Codes represent a lowest common denominator approach, other welfare standards, not always themselves sufficiently robust, have been developed by various NGOs, commodity organizations, and restaurant/retail firms, including Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Whole Foods. NGO standards are generally stronger than NFACC and food industry ones and have included the British Columbia SPCA’s ‘‘SPCA Certified’’,  the Winnipeg Humane Society’s ‘‘WHS Certified’’ programs, and the US Animal Welfare Institute’s (‘‘AWI’’) ‘‘Animal Welfare Approved’’ certification program. Local Food Plus created its  certification program in 2008 (and livestock standard soon thereafter), and its standards are still used though the organization has not been active now for a number of years. Not all these NGO standards have found the balance between animal welfare and farmer financial viability, in that some of the provisions are sufficiently demanding that few farmers can meet the requirements.

There is also a National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, promoted by the multisectoral (in both membership and funding) National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council (NFAHW Council).  NFACC is listed as a division of the Council. Although animal care and welfare are one of its named strategic outcomes (presumably because of NFACC), the primary focus is on zoonotic diseases.  The Council has called for a co-ordinated and consistent approach to farm animal care and welfare, with the NFACC Codes a central part of the proposed system. It argues,

Differences among provinces and territories may be meaningful when they reflect the diversity of the country including different concerns, customs or practices. However, many of the differences in animal protection law appear to have arisen more incidentally, for example if legislators or regulators were concerned about specific issues at specific times, or if options that were developed in one province were not widely known in others. (NFAHW Council, 2018)

To date, no coherent and co-ordinated national legislative and regulatory action has been implemented.

Provincial and federal rules are complaint-driven (little proactive monitoring and surveillance) and generally require a high burden of proof for enforcement action to proceed. Enforcement is also a patchwork, with  the Health of Animals Act  the responsibility of Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors, and some SPCA inspectors trained and appointed by the Agency, police officers and the British Columbia Minister of Transport also involved. In the provinces, a wide range of actors also have primary responsibility, with some working as third party contractors, and it is unclear whether all actors always have suitable levels of training.

Given market pressures, private firms and industry associations have pledged to eliminate certain controversial animal management practices, typically with long timelines.  Examples include:

  • All hens must be housed in enriched cage or non-cage housing systems that meet the egg-layer NFACC Code by  July 2036.
  • Sow stalls were being phased out by 2024, with transition to open sow housing systems, but NFACC has proposed shifting the deadline to 2029.  Current estimate is that 60% of sow barns will be converted by 2024, the rest by 2029 (Glen, 2020).

These, however, are not mandated in federal regulations.

There are also guidelines on the care and use of farm animals in science, operated by the Canadian Council on Animal Care in science.  These are philosophically comparable to the NFACC codes in that the research conducted on farm animals is primarily to benefit conventional commercial production objectives, although as with all scientific endeavours, there are a wide range of views within the scientific community about what is appropriate.  Many scientists have been leaders in promoting a new approach to animal welfare.

Framing solutions

Specific traditions in animal welfare impact how different actors engage with animals and solutions to current problems (Bradley and MacRae, 2010).

Fraser (2004) identifies three traditions in welfare science, based on different values and understandings. The first focuses on biological functioning, such as reproduction or lifespan to measure and improve welfare. The second looks at affective states such as pain and fear,  how an animal feels in certain situations, and their preferences. The third references how the animals would live ‘‘naturally’’, possibly involving the study of a species’ behavior in a wild setting  to construct a proximate artificial environment.  Industry usually supports a biological functioning understanding of welfare, whereas animal welfare advocates and consumers may identify more with the natural states understanding.

Farmers and scientists have a complex relationship with the animals they work with, often ambivalent, because while they care for the animals they raise (or study), they accept that these animals cannot be entirely free from suffering to fulfill their economic or research purposes (Serpell 1999). Thus, freedom from disease, rapid growth, and high reproductive performance are viewed as synonymous with good welfare.

A new approach, however, is guided largely by the 2nd and 3rd traditions:

  • interdependence, that humans are as dependent on domesticated animals as they are on us;
  • that animals are sentient, can feel in some ways pleasure and pain;
  • de-intensification of production and continuing redesign of production facilities to provide more space for "natural" individual and community behaviours
  • alignment with the need to reduce animal population densities and consumption of animal product (see Goal 2, Demand - supply Co-ordination)

Animal welfare organizations often capture much of this approach in the statement of the Five Freedoms, somewhat mislabelled in the food production context in the sense that "freedom from" is not usually entirely achievable.  The art of this new approach is the progressive transition to it, while also maintaining the economic viability of farmers (see Efficiency, Improving the Standards).

Financing the transition

As part of voluntary responses to market pressures, many private firms will bear part of the costs of this transition, already happening as farms invest in new welfare processes and structures, and processors and food service operations provide some supports to their suppliers in order to secure a reliable supply food of goods from humane treatment systems. There will also though be savings post - transition.  With improved animal health, expenditures on veterinarians and animal health products will likely decline. As welfare standards are integrated with sustainability ones, lower input costs will result. What is unclear, however, is the net situation for producers and processors who are selling less of certain things because demand is falling.  Presumably, this will generate some production and processing diversification through the lens of Demand - supply Coordination (see Goal 2), and potentially greater resilience, but there is no modelling of the firm level impacts at this stage.

However, to achieve a more targeted and ultimately full transition to welfare systems, significant government investments will be required. Presumably, as with many other domains of intervention, such  changes will help reduce health care and environmental cleanup costs linked to other portfolios.