Being the Change We Want to See

On Monday there was a followup story on last year’s undercover investigation that Mercy for Animals conducted at Chilliwack dairy farm, one of the suppliers of cow’s milk to Saputo Inc., a major dairy company here in Canada.  The main announcement was that as a result of last’s year undercover video – footage which included a cow being strung up by a chain from her neck and left to hang by a tractor while the workers jeered at her – Saputo will no longer be accepting milk from dairy farms that abuse its animals.

Although this is good news and a step in the right direction (Saputo is “one of the three biggest milk buyers in Canada,” and certainly has influence) there’s still a long way to go.  I wrote about this last year when the story first broke: even if the over-and-above abuses stop, factory farming by its very nature is still abuse. Confinement, artificial insemination, dehorning, tail docking, mechanized milking stalls, and babies being taken away from their mothers hours after birth still remain business-as-usual practices for dairy farms.  While I’m glad the cows aren’t being beaten with sticks and kicked in the face on top of their already-miserable daily lives, they are still very much enslaved by an industry and a consumer market that sees them as nothing more than product.  As my friend often points out, any group that is oppressed and is asking for their rights never says, “Could you just oppress us a little less?”  What they ask is to be free from their oppressors altogether: absolute liberation is the goal and so it must also be with animal rights.

Saputo has addressed some of the standard industry practices such as tail-docking and dehorning, both of which are routinely done without the use of any anesthetic since pain relief and proper vet care costs money (and you don’t want your “product” to cost more than it makes).  Saputo has made “a commitment to end tail docking” and to use “pain control” when dehorning cows. The company also “wants all farmers and employees to sign yearly codes of conduct” and is spending one million dollars on animal-care education programs at the University of Guelph and the University of Wisconsin.  Saputo will also hire third-party auditors to review their supply farms.

All of this sounds great.  And if it actually happens, it really will be.  The current CEO of Saputo, Lino Saputo, Jr., does seem genuine in his desire to rid his company of these abuses and has stated that he was “shaken” when he first saw the undercover video.  But he is only one person.  If the prevailing attitude towards animals does not change – i.e., they are essentially machines to take from them what we need – then he can only prevent and control so much.  Saputo employs 13,000 people in four countries.  Signing a piece of paper agreeing to the company’s terms and conditions will not simultaneously change an individual or reform long-standing industry practices.

What worries me most about this recent announcement – or any announcement that comes on the heels of an animal abuse case – is that it sends the message that something is being done and everyone can now relax.  I imagine most people in the public were pleased when they saw the headline that Saputo will discontinue accepting milk from suppliers who abuse animals. They no doubt felt relieved and assured, satisfied that they could once again feel comfortable reaching for that milk carton the next time they go grocery shopping.

But the hard truth remains: no amount of new policies, audits, agreements, donations or promises by Saputo will change the fact that factory farming, by its very definition, is the intensive breeding, confinement, exploitation and slaughter of living animals.  Chilliwack dairy farm is a factory.  Saputo relies on these factories to meet consumer demands for milk products.  While I’m delighted that it’s officially forbidden to kick a female cow in the face, I’m still deeply angered and saddened that that same female is kept perpetually pregnant her entire life, hooked up to a mechanical milk pump for hours a day in a milking stall where she can’t move or turn around, is never allowed to stay with her calf or nurse them or groom them and when her milk production dries up, she’s sent to the slaughterhouse to be made into hamburger meat.  That is the day-to-day practice of a dairy farm.  That is what the industry considers normal and not abusive.  That is what we as consumers are reaching for every time we buy dairy products.

Saputo’s response is just that: a response.  Whether it turns into action remains to be seen.  But we as consumers can choose our own answer.  It’s not up to Saputo to speak for us.  It’s not just their decision to make. We as individuals can make our own choice to reject and refuse products that come as a direct result of someone’s immense suffering.  Let’s not rely on big corporations and their PR firms to make us feel better.  Let’s just be better.

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