Ethically raised meat has never been in more demand as the horrors of factory farming make their way onto our daily news feeds. But as interest in humanely raised livestock grows, so does the voice of animal rights advocates who counter with the message that even if cows are raised on bucolic pastures, hens are living cage-free, and pigs are permitted to nurse their young outside of gestation crates, they will still meet the same fate as their industrially raised cousins: slaughter.
Thus, in order for food marketers to keep compassionate omnivores on board, the focus is now moving beyond the humane living conditions of farmed animals and on to their humane deaths. As "humanely butchered" is poised to become the next step in ethical eating, some artisan butchers, savvy restaurateurs, and food marketing experts are already hopping on board.
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As it stands, the slaughter of all farmed animals in Canada falls under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's Meat Inspection Regulations, which state (in part), "No food animal shall be handled in a manner that subjects the animal to avoidable distress or avoidable pain." By government standards, the most stress-free method of slaughtering cows and pigs is by mechanical stunning (captive bolt gun or firearm) in order to cause "bilateral damage to the midbrain and brainstem (control centers for consciousness, respiration and the circulatory system) . . . for the purposes of interrupting consciousness until the animal can be bled out." Birds are typically stunned using electricity.
Though the stunning of animals before death is a widely accepted method of humane slaughter, the concerns of many animal welfare advocates focus more on what leads up to that fateful shot.
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Anna Pippus of Animal Justice Canada, a not-for-profit group dedicated to advocating for the humane treatment of animals, says that farmed animals in Canada can be forced to endure transport for up to 52 hours without any food, water, or rest, and often in extreme weather. Compare this to the European Union where the travel time is eight hours maximum.
"Many are injured and even die as a result of exposure, overcrowding, suffocation, and jostling on the moving vehicles," she says. Pippus also says that regulations regarding the slaughter of farmed animals in Canada are too vague and impossible to reinforce due to the sheer number of animals being processed at a time. "Even though we killed 740 million farmed animals in 2014, there are only a few provisions regulating their slaughter, and they are badly under-enforced," she says. "It's simply not possible to raise and kill as many animals we do for food in a way that doesn't cause an enormous amount of suffering."
Animals are brought several hours, sometimes days in advance, so that they settle down from the transport, which is minimal distance relative to averages in North America. Animals are dealt with one at a time; it's not a fast assembly line. It's as humane as killing an animal can be.
However, it's not only animal welfare advocates who are voicing concerns over the slaughter of farmed animals in Canada. A growing number of artisan butchers are also questioning standard meat processing practices, including Mario Fiorucci, co-founder of Toronto's The Healthy Butcher. Fiorucci says he and his wife started The Healthy Butcher ten years ago "for the sole purpose of creating a place where people can source meat from animals raised the way nature intended." As former vegetarians, Fiorucci says their reason for not eating meat was due to poor choice of available products, meaning how the animals were raised, what they were fed, and how they were killed. "So we decided to open a store that can be the trustworthy source of healthy meat."
For Fiorucci, the concept of humane meat encompasses an animal's entire life, "from birth to death." He says consumers must not only question how their meat was raised and what it was fed, but also how far it was transported and how it was slaughtered. And although the actual kill process may be a standardized method in Canada, Fiorucci says, "how that process is handled is what makes some slaughterhouses so much better."
He elaborates: "Our certified organic beef was processed at a plant that was purchased by the collective of farmers. It's a small, multi-species operation. At any given time, there is a maximum of a half-dozen employees working. Animals are brought several hours, sometimes days in advance, so that they settle down from the transport, which is minimal distance relative to averages in North America. Animals are dealt with one at a time; it's not a fast assembly line. It's as humane as killing an animal can be."
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Of course, vegans and animal rights groups will tell us that "humane killing" for the purpose of meat consumption is an oxymoron, and that there is "no right way to do the wrong thing." But for those who do choose to eat meat, there does appear to be a better way to do what they call is the wrong thing, and that is something meat marketers and restaurateurs are ready to cash in on.
At Montreal's aptly named Omnivore restaurant, the Mediterranean-inspired menu caters to both herbivores and carnivores alike. Owner Charbel Yazbeck says he gets a lot of customers interested in the origin of their meats, and is proud to let them know that they serve beef that is certified VSC, or Le Viandes Selectionnees des Cantons. "It is Quebec-grown beef from a chain of 18-plus farms. In addition, the slaughterhouse, Les Viandes Laroche, functions in the best possible humane way not to stress and mistreat the animals; as humane as a slaughterhouse can be."
"We have to respect the animal," says Les Viandes Laroche president Claude Laroche. "We respect the animal as we respect the people who work here." In addition to applying the methods of animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, Laroche also shows respect by employing an interesting method of keeping animals calm via soothing music made just for cattle. "If we take care of the animals, you get better meat."
READ MORE: We Spoke to Temple Grandin About the UK Halal Slaughterhouse Controversy
Yazbeck says that although sourcing good-quality meats does come at a price, and that some consumers are still not prepared to pay, he does see humanely raised and butchered meats becoming more in-demand. "We can already see some big restaurant chains using it to attract customers."
Montreal-based food marketer Na'eem Adam agrees. "It's definitely a trend," he says, "but a good one." Adam says he sees consumers now "paying more for 'better'" and being drawn toward certain "old-school elements of the farm-to-table days, where your butcher was probably feasting with you and your family at the table." Adam also admits, however, that attempting to market anything to do with animal slaughter is bound to be challenging. "It's a tough topic to talk about," he says, "but people are requesting more information and are finally making changes."