Date: December 31 2012
It's been a landmark year for the animals. Public and media concern for the 500 million sentient beings that are mass-produced for food each year in Australia has never been higher and is now backed in some instances by regulatory muscle.
After Four Corners' expose of horrific abuse of Australian cattle in Indonesia last year, the program followed up in 2012 by bringing to light unspeakable cruelty to animals on a mass scale, in particular towards sheep exported to the Middle East.
Clearly, this current affairs flagship considers animal protection to be a policy issue of significant public importance, devoting substantial investigative resources to tackling it on a continuing basis.
We also saw the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission reject attempts by the egg producers' lobby to redefine free range as 20,000 birds per hectare through its initial assessment that such a definition would mislead consumers.
It is hard to imagine a universe in which this number would constitute free range until one is reminded that these same egg producers consider it reasonable to confine hens in wire cages with the space of an A4 page for their entire lives until they are trucked off to be killed.
This year consumers have also witnessed two high-profile television advertising campaigns lifting the veil on factory farming: Voiceless's ''Factory-farming: the truth is hard to swallow'' in February and more recently ''Make it Possible'' from our colleagues at Animals Australia.
Both campaigns have enabled the public to see the awful truth which is usually hidden behind the closed walls of factory farms. Armed with knowledge of the brutal conditions that animals are forced to endure, consumers are empowered. So much so, we seem to be on the brink of a mass realisation that when it comes to factory farming and the industrialised abuse of animals, enough is enough.
This is especially pertinent this time of year. As far as we've come, there is still a long way to go. Old habits die hard. The consumption of large quantities of meat, with ham the centrepieces of many a holiday feast, is deeply ingrained in the Australian psyche. Retailers, keen to encourage consumption, are not about to let us forget it. So we see ads like the ''Ham King'' campaign from Woolworths extolling the virtues of the Christmas ham, its preparation portrayed as a family tradition passed from one generation to the next.
This month Voiceless released a report into the factory farming of pigs, Science and Sense: the case for abolishing sow stalls. In this country, we still routinely lock mother pigs in stalls for most of their lives - individual, metal-barred cages barely larger than their bodies with concrete or slatted floors. More than 170,000 highly intelligent and social animals suffer disorders ranging from skin abrasions to lameness caused by the harsh conditions in which they are repeatedly confined. Many display ''stereotypies'', a repetitive movement such as bar-biting which is a known sign of distress. These animals never feel the grass or the sun, let alone the touch of a kind hand. If you treated a dog like this, you'd be prosecuted.
The report presents a thorough review of the relevant science, confirming the adverse health impacts of sow stalls on pigs. Science and Sense refutes the scientific justification of sow stalls used by the pork industry, concluding that stalls do not increase productivity or welfare compared to well-managed group housing of sows.
Our main food retailers, both leading and responding to consumer sentiment, have recognised this. For example, Coles announced it would no longer source its own brand of pig products from enterprises that use sow stalls from January 2014, and has now brought this deadline forward to January 2013. Woolworths expects to achieve the same by mid-2013.
As our report says, government action is long overdue. It's time for the Agriculture Minister, Joe Ludwig, to take a lead from the many nations that have rejected these cruel devices and prohibit sow stalls.
In this way, he would bring some comfort, if not the joy of a long, natural life, to these emotionally-complex beings. As is appropriate in a democracy, he would reflect the deep compassion that the vast majority of the Australian people feel for animals, whose lives are entirely at our mercy.
Brian Sherman is the managing director and co-founder of the animal protection think tank Voiceless.
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