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Alberta Beef Industry Calls “Bull” On MP’s Misguided Bill

CALGARY, Alta. - "What's the beef?" That's the question being asked by some in Alberta's cattle industry in response to a variety of livestock transport regulations, bills and motions that are being p...

CALGARY, Alta. –“What’s the beef?” That’s the question being asked by some in Alberta’s cattle industry in response to a variety of livestock transport regulations, bills and motions that are being pushed in Ottawa, including a Liberal private member’s bill.

The bill, spearheaded by Quebec MP Alexandra Mendes, is designed to change federal regulations relating to food and water requirements for animals in transit, and some industry members say it could wreak havoc on an industry that’s already trying to be proactive.

“I think (the Private Member’s bill) would basically destroy the cattle industry,” says Rick Sincennes, who transports cattle for Butte Grain Merchants of Picture Butte, Alta. “It’s someone putting through a bill that they know nothing about.”

Current regulations allow cattle, sheep, goats and some other animals to be transported for up to 48 hours at a stretch -52 hours if they can reach their destination by then. Mendes’ bill, seconded by B.C. NDP MP Alex Atamanenko, would bring Canadian standards in line with those in the European Union, including mandating a 12-hour limit for transporting ruminants like cattle. Sincennes hauls cattle to Washington State, Utah and Colorado -trips that mean the livestock is on the trailer for more than the 12 hours Mendes’ bill would mandate.

“There are two packing plants within about two hours of most of the feedlots in southern Alberta,” he says, “but there are just too many cattle for them all to be handled here, so what would happen if the bill passes is they’d have to be unloaded and watered and fed and left for four hours.”

This would require new facilities along the way to handle the mandated time-outs for the animals in transit, since you can’t just pull off to the side of the road and let the animals out for recess.

Sincennes also points out that the actual transporting of the animals is the least damaging part of the trip.

“The most stressful thing for cattle is the loading and unloading process itself,” he says, “so why would you put cattle through that stress again if you don’t have to?” Sincennes also claims there’s no research that says cattle are harmed by being hauled “for 14 or 16 hours.”

Alberta’s beef producers agree. According to Reynold Bergen, research manager for Alberta Beef Producers, the industry as a whole is already ahead of the game when it comes to making the transportation of live animals more efficient and humane.

“We’ve been active on the whole issue of transport regulation for over three years,” Bergen says, “because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (the federal department charged with regulating livestock transport) has been wanting to revamp regulations that are 30 years old.”

He notes that much has changed over the years and that, while it’s true that cattle are moving farther and more often than they have before, there have also been many improvements with livestock transport over that period.

For example, “It used to be that a lot of cattle got moved on rail cars and it would take them seven days to get from western Canada to Ontario and Quebec where all the feeding happened,” Bergen says. “And now cattle are transported on trucks and a lot of feeding is going on in the west, so cattle aren’t transported across the country as much as they used to be.”

Updating old regulations isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Bergen says the industry wants to ensure that any new regulations are based on sound science rather than raw emotion; that “if a change to the regulations was proposed it would have a proven benefit to the animal and be cost-effective for the industry.”

The group also wanted the science proven under Canadian conditions, as opposed to merely mimicking the European methodology because, as Bergen says, “a lot of the transportation in Europe is between much smaller countries and across much different geography, which means the conditions of an eight hour trip there would be different from one in Canada.”

One of the points the ABP stresses is that good commerce is good welfare. “Cattle are valuable to the owners and to the buyers,” Bergen says, “and they are very aware that they don’t want to do anything that is going to harm animals in transit.”

One possible snag for the ABP was that no high-quality Canadian science was available that had been done under commercial conditions. This led the organization to spearhead and cofund a research project aimed at learning about the routine industry practices for hauling cattle in western Canada.

Researcher Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Research Station of Lethbridge, led the survey of producers and commercial truckers who hauled cattle in Alberta. The study looked at such parameters as trailer types, loading density, distance travelled, time in transit and incidence of animal injuries and deaths for the nearly 9,000 trucks, and half a million cattle included.

Among the preliminary findings were that long-haul trips originating in Alberta averaged just over 1,000 km and lasted 16 hours (including loading and unloading), with only 2% of fat cattle and 8% of feeder cattle spending more than 32 hours on trucks, and none exceeding the maximum regulatory time in transit.

Perhaps most important, the study showed that 99.94% of long-haul cattle reached their destination without injury and that the risk of animal injury got lower as drivers’ experience increased.

The results don’t come as a surprise to Sincennes. “I only had one dead animal in four years, and that was in a two-hour haul,” he says. “And it wasn’t a transportation problem, it was more like defective goods.” He says that in the same four-year period he’s experienced no animals with broken legs or other such injuries.

“I’m not saying it doesn’t happen,” he admits, “but when it does the people who are responsible for it are in trouble. It just isn’t tolerated.”

Sincennes thinks that making the Canadian regulations match those in Europe is a bad idea, because the European rules have affected the industry there adversely.

“We have guys working for us from Europe and they say it’s just ridiculous there,” he says.

One example: Sincennes says that “In Europe, you even have to keep the temperature in the trailer above zero degrees Celsius, so they have to heat the trailer,” which means cattle could be loaded in minus 30 degree temperatures outside, travel inside a heated trailer and, depending on the destination, be unloaded back into minus 30 degree temperatures again -animals that, if not being transported, would have been just standing outside in those temperatures anyway. ” How much extra would it costto heat a trailer for no reason?” Sincennes asks. “It’s a huge expense; you’d have to retrofit every cattleliner in the country, basically restructure the whole system.”

Sincennes says drivers from Europe tell him that animal rights activists over there caught the industry unaware. “They got up one morning and it’s regulated, and once that happens you have a hard time getting rid of it again,” he says. “We can’t let that happen here. It’s a huge expense to producers, and the price has to go up. It makes the final product cost that much more.”

Regulatory changes are bound to happen, however, so the Alberta Beef Producers are trying to ensure they’re outcome-based.

“We don’t want prescriptive regulations that are hard and fast numbers in terms of how long cattle can be in transit, exact loading density or exactly how often you need to stop for feed, water or rest stops, or how long those stops have to be,” says Bergen. “What we want is outcome-based regulations -guidelines that would allow experienced and competent truckers to use their judgment and get cattle from Point A to Point B as safely and efficiently as possible. We want some flexibility in the process.”

Bergen says they also want to ensure there aren’t loopholes for bad drivers to drive through.

“A bad outcome (injuries in transit) would result in questions fo
r the driver regardless of whether they had stuck to the recommended times, loading densities or whatever, because even though they did everything by the numbers something happened to result in a bad outcome for the animals.”

As the process of re-regulating proceeds, Bergen thinks the industry’s attempts are being successful.

“The Canadian Food Inspection Agency appears to recognize the value of outcome-based regulations which will allow good truckers to continue operating responsibly and encourage poor drivers to shape up or find something else to haul,” he says.

Ensuring the competence and professionalism of drivers is an ongoing challenge made worse for Alberta’s cattle industry by a shortage of experienced livestock haulers. Even when the province’s economy was going full speed ahead, good drivers were in short supply.

“Part of it had to do with BSE (so-called Mad Cow Disease),” Bergen says, “shere a lot of drivers just found something else to haul -and in fact could make more money hauling other things.”

Then, when the cattle industry started to pick up again and live cattle started moving to the US once more, there were even fewer experienced truckers available to haul livestock. This led to the development of a program called Certified Livestock Transporter (CLT), aimed at helping new drivers in particular get up to speed with recommended methods for hauling different classes of livestock. The program, which is offered in most Canadian provinces, covers such issues as the different needs of different classes of animal, loading density and feed, as well as the pertinent regulations.

“The fact that the industry put that course together has been quite well received by the CFIA,” Bergen says. Still, the private member’s bill before Parliament, coupled with high profile protests from animal rights activists, helps contribute to a perception among the public that there’s a legitimate problem. That’s why, Bergen says, it’s important that people know the CFIA and the industries involved -both livestock and trucking -have already been working on the issue.

“We’re kind of the ground zero for the livestock industry,” Bergen says. “We have to do a huge amount of work just to prove that we’re doing a good job. But on the other hand it’s good that we have the opportunity to do so and it’s good that the regulators appear to be taking this input quite seriously.”

Bergen says that another factor contributing to the public’s perception that animals are being abused is the increasing urbanization of society. He notes that most North Americans are at least three generations removed from the farm, which means most people have never learned about livestock production and transport.

“They know nothing other than what they read in the paper or kid’s books,” he says. The bottom line, Bergen says, is that the industry has to make sure it not only has the facts but that it’s effective at communicating them. “If we don’t get our message out,” he says, “people are only going to get the perspective of the animal activists, and they’re a lot better funded than we are.”


‘The Most Stressful Thing For Cattle Is The Loading And Unloading Process.’

Rick Sincennes

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