Most producers of beef, pork and chicken would agree that their livestock should be raised as humanely as possible, industry experts say. But defining what constitutes ethical treatment can be difficult, depending on one’s point of view.

Some, like Crystal Mackay, the president of Farm and Food Care Ontario, say that too often, people view animal living conditions through the lens of what a human being would find acceptable.

“A cow is not a chicken is not a pig is not a person," she said.

Using the “human emotion side” to evaluate the living conditions of livestock is a good starting place, she said, it's also important to consult the science of animal behaviour.

“If you bought five chickens and put them in your garage, they’d huddle together in a corner. They want safety. But if you just penned them off in a little space in the corner, and your friend walked in, he would say ‘Hey, those chickens don’t have a lot of room.'  [That’s] because he's using his human eyes.”

The issue of the ethical treatment of livestock has been brought to the forefront following the broadcast of undercover video of an Ontario chicken hatchery that reveals a number of questionable practices that animal rights groups say are inhumane.

Mackay said the assertion that farm animals in general are not treated well is “absolutely false,” but said there will always be some individuals who make poor choices in caring for their livestock.

“The concept of continually improving animal welfare is alive and well,” she said. “So I would say the report card on animal welfare in  Canada is that we’re solidly doing a good job, but there is always room for improvement as we learn to do things better —  whether it’s how to euthanize animals or how to care for them in groups.”

'Bottom line is humane treatment'

Ron Davidson, a spokesman for the Canadian Meat Council, which represents federally registered meat producers, said there’s ongoing debate within the industry itself as to which systems are actually better for caring for animals.

“There is a scientific debate about this. It’s not black and white. There are different views on different housing and handling practices. It’s not straightforward.  There are different perspectives. The bottom line is humane treatment.”

“Certainly, there’s a consensus on no undue suffering."

But the reality is that death is not pleasant for any species and there’s no way one can make it pleasant, Davidson said.

“So you have to start with that understanding. But given that understanding you have to try to make things as least hurtful as possible.”

Ryder Lee, manager of federal and provincial relations for the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, said farmers work with animals to ensure they get what they need so they can thrive and produce a living for their farmers.

"That’s the thing that seems to get skirted a lot. If you’re not giving them what they need, it’s a pretty short-term thing and you’ll end up not being viable and having to find something else to do."

But Lesli Bisgould, an adjunct professor in University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law who specializes in animal rights law, dismissed those claims.

"There’s mega profits coming out of the agricultural industry now and all that profit is being earned on the animals' backs. The less you worry about their welfare, the more money can go into your profit," she said.

"I think the industry really thrives in the ambiguity of the language," she said. "We hear industry regularly assuring the public that everything they do is humane. 'It’s all ethical. There’s no unnecessary suffering.' These are very vague terms that conjure up comforting images. But we really don’t know what they mean."

'No few rotten apples'

She said in cases where the industry admits animals are being treated inhumanely, they will dismiss it as a few rotten apples. 

"And nothing could be further from the truth. There is no few rotten apples. This is the industry," Bisgould said.

There are industry guidelines on how animals should be cared for, set out in a code of practices developed by the National Farm Animal Care Council, an organization made up of stakeholders from a number of areas, including farmers, producers, veterinarians, scientists and animal welfare groups. 

"It's a very complex issue. Everyone has a different perspective and it's going to be based on each of our experience, education in this area, our expertise, even our culture can come into play and even economic realities come into play," said Jackie Wepruk, general manager of NFACC, adding that they also rely on public consultations.

"It's a very rigorous process. It's very firmly based in what we know in terms of the science around animal welfare."

Wepruk said they have a scientific committee that starts off with looking at the priority issues for each species.

"Welfare issues are going to be usually the things that are going to be the most contentious, the things where we don't always agree with each other. So we have to start with that common foundation of well what does the science say."

For example, they will look into the health and biological functioning of an animal, its feeling around pain, fear, frustration, pleasure or how an animal would exist in a more natural environment.

But the organization must also take into account whether the code of practices are practical for agricultural farmers to implement and if they reflect societal expectations around animal welfare.

"So it's really about balancing all the perspectives."