Some examples of the poor treatment of egg laying hens mentioned in Gene Baur's book, Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food, and also the chooseveg.ca website include the following:
- beak tips are cut off with no anesthetic so chickens do not peck at, and injure each other
- hens are housed in battery cages in which birds have space equivalent to an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper
- at hatching facilities baby chicks are sorted. Females go to laying facility, males chicks are discarded -sometimes ground up in a commercial size garberator or left to suffocate in a large plastic bag
- one farm in California disposed of 30,000 unwanted hens by putting them through a wood chipper
- the life expectancy of a chicken in a natural setting is about 10-15 years whereas a factory egg laying hen is often sent to slaughter at 1-1.5 years of age when production drops off
|Discarded male chicks.|
|Battery cages in Guelph, Ontario|
After reading the above information I was grateful that our family already pays the extra money and buys Island Gold Organic Free Run Eggs. According to the carton the eggs "are produced by hens fed a special diet of all-natural, organically grown grains that are free of pesticides, herbicides or preservatives. The hens are free roaming and have access to outdoors, weather and environment conditions permitting." I also went to the Burnbrae Farms website as they are the parent company for Island Gold. The website does have a section about social responsibility and I did ask for, and promptly receive, a copy of their Animal Welfare Policy. It is brief, easy to read and contains information about the beak treatment, housing practices, and use of antibiotics and hormones, among other things. Given the amount of chatter I hear about antibiotics and hormones in food products I was particularly interested to note that steroid and hormone use has been illegal in the Canadian Egg Industry for over 50 years.
From the Burnbrae Farms website I also found a link to a series of virtual farm tours. When you get to the main page you simply click on the type of farm you are interested in learning about. When I went to the egg farm section there were three separate tours for conventional eggs, free run eggs, and free range eggs. After looking at all three different types I still prefer the free range. I am happy to pay more for eggs from chickens that have more space, and more freedom.
If you take a look at the complete code of practice for "Chickens, Turkeys and Breeders..." you will see on page four that "high-speed maceration of chicks is a practical and humane method of euthanasia" for non saleable chicks as well as several other methods. There are some specific notes regarding how exactly it should be done for it to be considered humane, but there is certainly room for error or simple carelessness. At the end of the code of practice document the issue of disposing of non saleable chicks is flagged for further research and improvement from an animal welfare perspective. I should also mention that the code of practice for "Chickens, Turkeys and Breeder..." will be reviewed this year by the National Farm Animal Care Council at the request of several farming groups.
Now for the meat chickens. My reading of the previously mentioned sources included the following poor treatment:
- genetic breeding that makes the birds so large their skeleton cannot support the weight
- ammonia burns on their feet and legs due to the large amount of urine and feces in overcrowded conditions
- sick chickens left untreated to die
- shocking assembly line slaughter: shackled, stunned, throats cut, then boiled - sometimes before they are completely dead
There is a section on page twenty of the full code of practice that provides guidelines for litter maintenance: that pens should be cleaned between flocks, and that litter quality should be monitored daily and corrected if necessary (ie. too wet). I read through the the sections regarding transport and slaughter and it is hard to imagine how it could be any better. I wonder if we had to slaughter our own chickens in our backyard if we would naturally eat less meat. The guidelines are there for humane transport and slaughter, but there are so many ways it could go sideways and even under the best circumstances I doubt it is pleasant for the chickens.
In some grocery stores you will find an organic chicken option. I found a producer in BC called Thomas Reid Farms based in Langley who summarizes organic chicken as follows: no medications, no pesticides, access to outdoors. According to their website the Reid farm was the first organic chicken farm in BC, certified in 1994. I was happy to note on his website that most Thrifty Food locations on Vancouver Island carry his products. I also found the website for Certified Organic Associations of BC on which you can search for organic farms in BC by region. On this website I also found a compliance affidavit for the purpose of ensuring that the slaughter facility acts in accordance with organic procedures.
Animal cruelty laws, punishment and enforcement can vary from province to province and the recommended codes of practice are just that: recommended. I imagine that, as with any industry, you will get farms in which the animals are treated well and others where they are not. Without proper funding for monitoring it is impossible to have 100% compliance. I guess the best we can do is decide for ourselves what standards of raising and slaughtering we are comfortable with, and choose our sources of eggs and chicken accordingly. If you choose to purchase the less expensive meat and eggs this post should give you an idea of what that means from an animal welfare and health perspective. I have also included links to several resources which will get you started if you decide to do further research on your own. One further link for your reference would be http://www.letstalkfarmanimals.ca/, which is a blog/forum regarding farm animal issues.
If you already buy your eggs, or chicken from a local, organic farm please share your thoughts/experience!