A member of the BC SPCA’s Advocacy team met with SPCA Certified farmers and a Canadian expert in poultry transportation to dig into the issue of safe transportation on large scale farms.
I set out to answer this question by reaching out to a Canadian researcher in chicken transport and two SPCA Certified farmers. Tim Rempel from Rockweld Farm raises egg-laying hens and broiler chickens in British Columbia. Roger Harley from Harley Farms raises broiler chickens on a 1400 acre sustainable farm in Ontario. Roger’s perspective on farming is “If you can’t do it ethically, perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Both farmers will only transport chickens in weather conditions that ensure the birds do not overheat or freeze. In the summer, they choose to transport at night, when the weather is cooler and there is less traffic on the road. Adapting practices to the weather is something some large-scale producers aren’t always able to do without losing a significant amount of revenue. In an industry with extremely small profit margins, sometimes the death of chickens on a truck is less costly than rescheduling a pick-up or arranging for a secondary smaller truck to come so the birds have more space.
Dr. Trever Crowe from the University of Saskatchewan gives credit to transporters, acknowledging that many he has worked with are actively trying to address some of these issues that result in mortality. Dr. Crowe shared that the “most important thing is to keep birds dry.” If the chickens get wet, they are more susceptible. The cause of mortality is not always related to environmental conditions; sometimes a bird’s health is compromised prior to transport in ways that are undetectable.
Dr. Crowe also mentioned something I had suspected: there is so much we don’t know about how different factors affect each other, including the length of transport, type and age of chicken, temperature, moisture, and even the air velocity can play a role in the birds’ experiences and welfare. He worked with a research team at the University of Saskatchewan to design and develop an experimental trailer that allowed the assessment of environmental conditions within poultry transport vehicles, including supplemental heat and active ventilation. Generally, those research results showed that while increased ventilation during cold ambient conditions resulted in lower exposure temperatures for the birds, the birds remained dry and were able to be transported safely.
Undercover footage of chicken abuse
Recent undercover footage of a chicken catching company loading chickens for transport has many Canadians concerned. Workers are seen running over birds with forklifts, ripping off body parts and holding chickens by their necks.
If you can’t do it ethically, perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it.
– Roger Harley, Harley Farms (ON)
I received calls from folks across the country who were disturbed by the footage – one woman was even unable to sleep. They all wanted to know how this situation could be prevented in the future. These Canadians know instinctively what some workers handling animals do not: many prey species, including chickens, don’t make noise when they experience pain or stress; in nature, this would make them more susceptible to predation. Instead, they freeze in place.
Most chicken catching in Canada involves holding the birds upside-down by their legs. This usually causes the birds to go into “flight” or “freeze” mode, both a sign of stress. While the footage filmed on B.C. farms demonstrated egregious abuse, handling is always a stressful time for birds.
Catching chickens could be a mechanized process. A machine has been designed called a chicken harvester that has demonstrated a significant reduction in the number of injuries compared to those that occur from being ‘hand-wrangled’ by people.
To ensure chickens experience the lowest stress possible, birds could also picked up one by one and kept upright until placed in their transport container. While this is the approach taken on Harley Farms, it is more time consuming. If animal handlers move more slowly to make it less stressful, consumers need to be willing to pay the additional costs or opt to add more plant-based proteins to their diet.
What about laws and monitoring?
Loading chickens for transport is not monitored by government or any outside agencies. Sometimes it is completed by the farmer, while in other cases, it is completed by the transporter or an agency that only does catching, often contracted by the producer. This leads to disagreements over who should be responsible for monitoring when in reality, the health and welfare of these birds is a collective responsibility.
The current and proposed Health of Animals Regulations that pertain to the transportation of animals puts forward standards that are either infrequently enforced or are impossible to meet unless allowing some stress and suffering to occur. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, responsible for enforcing these regulations, views a certain amount of suffering as acceptable. Only once a threshold is reached will it trigger an investigation.
This is especially relevant to chickens, where certain numbers of chickens dying or being injured in transport is seen as normal and acceptable. This could be as many as 65 chickens raised for meat on one truck, depending on how densely the chickens are loaded and the size of the vehicle.
The most effective legislation would mandate third-party monitoring (outside agencies conducting surprise inspections) to track the minimum number of acceptable injuries and deaths. Penalties could be issued to loading and transport companies that exceed these thresholds. Dr. Crowe suggests an incentive, or reward, based system for workers would be successful, encouraging them to follow their training and avoid shortcuts. This could include monetary bonuses for no injuries or deaths upon unloading.
Email our farm department team for more information.