DFO will slit its own throat with its draft “Animal Abuse Policies”
Dairy Farmers of Ontario [DFO] has produced its draft “Animal Abuse Policies” in response to the Dairy Processors Association of Canada [DPAC] policy statement, which followed a similar policy statement created by Saputo Inc. in the wake of the Chilliwack dairy farm case.
In a nutshell, DPAC wants provincial milk-marketing agencies to have a policy in place to ensure that milk does not enter the milk-market place from a farm that is embroiled in some sort of animal abuse or cruelty scandal. This, in itself, is understandable. DFO, meanwhile, has puzzlingly developed a proposed policy that goes well beyond addressing DPAC’s concerns – imposing automatic license suspensions, halt payments, and even permanent licence revocation, on the basis of charges being laid (at the complete discretion of the OSPCA) and convictions being rendered (including plea bargains) for contravening the OSPCA Act – which is a law that regulates much more than what is generally envisioned to be true abuse and cruelty situations, like those depicted in the Chilliwack case.
I have to assume that DFO failed to consult with any legal practitioners when it developed this policy, because it fails to consider a number of important legal factors.
It is important to note that DPAC’s and DFO’s mandate is about milk-marketing, not animal welfare issues per se. Animal welfare issues become relevant to DPAC and DFO when it affects marketing. We already have animal police in Ontario (the OSPCA), and a court system to levy penalties – it would be inappropriate for marketing agencies to attempt to subvert these a roles. Of course, DPAC and DFO are rightly concerned with issues related to sensational animal abuse / cruelty cases, because it can affect marketing, but these cases are very rare and it should be kept in perspective when a policy is proposed that will inevitably affect many more farmers than what was surely imagined.
DFO’s draft policy is overly complicated and vague. It is complicated by having a complex set of criteria to suspend licenses, halt payments, and even permanently revoke licenses. It is vague by relying on considerations set out in the OSPCA Act, and by depending on the discretionary actions of the OSPCA. Despite DFO’s apparent belief to the contrary, they have no legal authority to influence the decisions of the OSPCA to investigate or lay charges against dairy farmers.
What do you get when you combine a complicated policy with vagueness? Unintended consequences. As unpredictable as the consequences may be, DFO’s draft policy will guarantee one thing – it will impact at least some dairy producers that it was never intended or imagined to affect.
More specifically, the draft DFO policy has completely ignored the tiered system of animal welfare law in Canada. We have both provincial (i.e. the OSCPA Act) and federal (i.e. the Criminal Code) animal welfare laws. Only federal animal welfare law will apply to producers consistently across Canada. If producers’ licenses are suspended on the basis of contravening provincial laws, then Ontario producers will be more likely to be suspended than anywhere else in Canada due to our much stricter animal welfare laws featured in the OSPCA Act.
In addition, as I have eluded to above, the federal animal welfare provisions of the Criminal Code are directed at addressing true abuse / cruelty situations – which are the stated concerns of DPAC. The Criminal Code, therefore, should be the focus of any policy concerned with egregious animal welfare cases that might affect milk-marketing. DFO’ s proposed policy, to the contrary, has focused on provincial animal welfare laws, which are more directed at regulating the quality and nature of animal care. This misses the mark as far as DPAC should be concerned, and exposes producers to possible marketing sanctions for even relatively minor quality of care issues. Put another way, if a situation does not constitute Criminal Code charges, then the case is probably not serious enough to raise marketing concerns for the industry.
Apart from the above, DFO has also seemingly ignored (or had no appreciation for) the practical realities of our legal system. According to the draft policy, suspensions, halt payments, and even permanent license revocation proceedings will be triggered by OSPCA Act charges being laid (at the discretion of the OSCPA) and / or convictions being rendered (including plea bargains). Such triggers are dangerous, unpredictable, and will have far reaching consequences for affected dairy farmers, guilty or not.
First, DFO’s proposal to automatically suspend a producer’s license when charges are laid means that the OSPCA has de facto authority to have a producer’s license suspended. DFO has no legal authority to influence a decision to lay charges.
Second, the harsh reality of the legal system is that most cases do not go to trial, are not determined based on actual evidence, and people routinely plead guilty even when they believe they are innocent. This is especially true when it involves provincial offenses like the OSPCA Act, because a guilty plea does not result in a criminal record. Without having to worry about a criminal record, it simply makes good financial sense to spend less on a fine than what legal fees might cost to fight a charge. Some people also choose to plead guilty to escape the ongoing stress and health issues related to months or even years-long court processes.
If the DFO invokes its proposed policy, farmers would effectively have no option but to spend huge money to fight charges, because the proposed punitive measures invoked by DFO, if a farmer pleads guilty, would be worse than anything the courts might levy.
What is the solution? Scrap the draft proposal and invoke a policy whereby situations are considered on a case-by-case basis. Do not hinge decisions on the actions of the OSPCA. Do not automatically impose penalties without assessing the facts.
The reality is that sensational animal welfare cases involving the dairy industry are very rare. Having a hearing for each case, to consider the facts individually, would be far from onerous.
At minimum, if DFO is determined to implement a blanket policy with automatic suspensions in place, then DFO must at least distinguish between Criminal Code and the OSPCA Act cases. The difference between these charges is enormous. DPAC seems primarily concerned with conduct that warrants Criminal Code charges. DFO should limit its policy to the same.