Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Organic Foods Suck! ... says sucky study

Last fall, one of those deliciously contrarian studies came out that grabs headlines but doesn't deserve it. It turned out the flashy study from Stanford University was as much a case of false advertising as the organic foods it portrayed in that light. Annoyed by the study's flaws, I took it to task for The Aquarian. Here's a tweaked version of what I wrote followed by a brief update. 

From The Aquarian, Winter 2012
Organic Foods Suck: Study
Actually, the study does


Like a tsunami of cold water on the good name of organic food, the story was all over the media early in September. You pretty much had to be living off the grid to miss it. The headlines were withering enough to dry out a rack of organic grapes:

Facing the Hunter

To nonvegans, a vegan diet typically sounds like the culinary equivalent of a medieval hair shirt or a masochistic vow of chastity. 

"You can't even drink milk or eat eggs???" (It's always framed as "can't," as if we're doing penance or have joined some fundamentalist religion*). 

No, we can't - I mean won't. But the surprising thing is how bloody great (no pun intended) a vegan diet can be, even for a guy like myself who a) loves to eat, b) loves almost all animal foods and would happilly eat them if they grew on trees, and c) mostly eats his own cooking (I have no training, I don't follow recipes). Thirteen years on, my enjoyment of my vegan diet just keeps getting better as I explore more and more vegetables and other plant-based foods, not to mention the ever-improving variety of faux animal products. 

But I digress.

At least hypothetically, a vegan like myself could at some point in his life be faced with the choice of eating meat or starving, or becoming seriously ill. This is not so hypothetical for me. Were it not for the supplement L-carnitine - a nonessential nutrient mostly found in red meat, but easily produced from other dietary nutrients by most vegetarians, but not me - I'm quite sure I would be a basket case. That is what I start to become - a human rag doll - every time I stop taking the supplement. 

But what would I do if there were no carnitine supplements and no one, not even the best vegan dietitians and doctors in the world, could keep me vegan and healthy? What to do if I crash-landed in the Arctic Circle, in a post-Apocalyptic world, and all I could eat was seal? 

First, there's a possibility that my conscience would stop me from doing it, especially if I continue to have no dependents (beyond a couple of adoptable cats) and to continue not getting any younger. Why am I more important, more worthy of life, than the many** animals who would eventually die to sustain me for the rest of my life? 

But more likely I would bite the bullet and do what I must to survive, at the expense of other lives. After all, I - and all other vegans - do already. Even our food is come by at the expense of many mice, rabbits, lizards and other field animals where the crops that feed us grow (but not nearly as many, it must be emphasized, as are killed to produce an omnivorous diet). The inescapable reality is that we all leave a footprint of animal death and suffering. Rational veganism means avoiding or minimizing as much of that harm as we possibly can. 

So if I couldn't survive or be healthy without eating meat, where would I get it? 

My first go-to choice would be meat from the most humanely treated animals available (in this thought experiment we're imagining that animal byproducts like milk and eggs, as well as fish and seafood, are unavailable or won't suffice). I've been to small humane-oriented farms near where I live where the animals, to all appearances and based on my trust of the farmers (fellow travellers in the war against factory farms), have a really good life - a life worth living, as the expression goes. Most of them are killed young (that's the nature of commercial meat production in today's world) and typically in small slaughterhouses where humane handling may not be a sure thing (the big slaughter plants often are caught in the act of abusing animals, whether deliberately or as a byproduct of their relentless high-speed disassembly practices). Still, this is a distinctly lesser evil for anyone who must eat meat. 

But there's another option I would find comparably acceptable: the meat from hunted animals. Not just any animals hunted by anyone with a rifle. But if someone like Canadian author David Adams Richards does the hunting (or even me, having learned to do it his way), I could accept that too as a distinctly lesser evil. 

A couple years ago I was asked by the Winnipeg Free Press to review a small book - an extended autobiographical essay, really - in which Richards' makes a case for his traditional brand of hunting, the kind, he says, practised by all the respectable hunters in his native rural New Brunswick. Here it is. Judge for yourself. 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2011 J9
You have to hunt for Richards' message
Reviewed by Syd Baumel

Facing the Hunter

Reflections on a Misunderstood Way of Life

By David Adams Richards

Doubleday Canada, 224 pages, $30

Unless you're an avid reader of the author's Governor General's Award-winning fiction, it's not until the very last sentence that you learn where his title comes from. It's an enigmatic choice.

But then this is an enigmatic piece of non-fiction. In this era of animal activism and embattled Atlantic sealers, one might expect a spirited intellectual defence by the New Brunswick-bred David Adams Richards of his beloved yet "misunderstood way of life."

But there's little of that in this slim volume, and what there is is personal and repetitious.

Rather, this is a defence by storytelling: story after New Brunswick hunting story, as if told to mates around a campfire in a rambling stream of consciousness.

This vivid immersion in Richards' woodland passion does rub off, assuming you're game to wade through thickets of hunter-speak.

Even a vegan if compelled to eat meat to survive might prefer the conscientious way of hunting practised by Richards and the hunters he respects to stalking factory-farmed animal parts at the supermarket.

It's a hunt, Richards insists, that takes no pleasure in taking life; that would rather miss bagging that elusive 20-point buck if it might turn out to be the female of the species with dependent young or if that risky long shot might wound without killing, condemning the prey to a slow and painful death.

It's a hunter's code that commits to "hunting the wounded down" (to quote a title of a Richards novel) even if it takes days, so the animal doesn't suffer and the meat isn't wasted.

Richards' problem -- and he's wounded and dangerous about it -- is that ignorant city-slickers, including fellow literati, look at conscientious hunters like himself and see a stereotype: the redneck taking potshots between swigs of beer, the trophy hunter with a heart of stone. But Richards despises hunters like these and tells a few stories at their expense.

Poor man: it's as if urban cultural warriors are preying on endangered woodland sportsmen.

But Richards doesn't draw that ironic parallel. Indeed, there's little facing of the hunter in the mirror here.

Not even when recalling his earliest boyhood kills does Richards describe his emotions when sighting his prey, pulling the trigger and watching an innocent die by his hand.

There is only a parenthetic aside where he confesses to once killing a doe: "I never felt good about it, and I mention it because I never felt good about it." Instead, it's always fast-forward to "dressing" (cutting and gutting) the prey or tracking it, if wounded.

But this is glossed over, too. Not a word about what it's like to finish off a gasping deer, not a whiff of ripped open belly and steaming entrails or the pathos of a great carcass hauled from its woodland home.

But Richards does face the supermarket hunter -- with relish. Three times he throws down the gauntlet: "those who eat meat should be morally obligated to kill at least once in their lives that which they eat."

He doesn't mean fire a captive bolt into the skull of a cow or pig, hoist its unconscious body, slash its throat, bleed it, saw and chop it.

Nor does he suggest that urban meat-eaters (like Richards himself, a 60-year-old Torontonian now, he thinks his hunting days may be over) be morally obligated to witness how their shrink-wrapped prey are raised (the battery cages, the sow stalls, the feedlots) and shipped to slaughter (the densely crowded truck rides without food, water, heat or AC, sometimes lasting days, sometimes deadly in themselves).

But that kind of reality check might be too disturbing even for a hunter to face.

Winnipeg writer and editor Syd Baumel is the creator of eatkind.net and a vegan hunter of faux meats.

*Okay. You got me. For some people veganism is like a fundamentalist religion.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Way We Eat - by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

In case you haven't noticed, I'm straying ever so slightly from the 24-hour news-cycle imperative in order to rehouse some of my earlier work, no longer available on the new website of The Aquarian

So in that self-serving spirit, I give you a review from 2006 of one of the first - and best - books on ethical eating. 

from The Aquarian, Fall 2006
The Way We Eat 
Why Our Food Choices Matter 

By Peter Singer and Jim Mason 

Rodale, 2006 
Hardcover, 328 pages, $34.95 (Canada), $25.95 (U.S.)

available at Amazon.com | Amazon.ca

Reviewed by SYD BAUMEL

In 1975, ethicist Peter Singer's classic, Animal Liberation, helped fuel the modern ethical vegetarian and vegan movement. In its second edition – published in 1990 – it still does. 

Our notions of ethical eating have grown much more complex since then; so it's fitting that one of the world's preeminent logicians of moral complexity has returned to the field with an enlightening addition to the current first crop of books on ethical eating.*

If you've ever found yourself stuck to the floor of a grocery aisle not knowing which product to buy lest some animal, farmer, patch of land or body of water should suffer more if you buy product A than product B, C or D, this book's for you. Singer and co-author Jim Mason – himself the author of 1980's seminal Animal Factories – take an admirably impartial look at the moral questions that haunt today's food shelves. And while that impartiality sometimes leads to ethical uncertainties that may leave you as stuck to the floor as ever, at least your worry lines will grow deeper and wiser.

Take the "locavore" imperative – the conventional food-politics wisdom that local food is a more ethical and sustainable choice than imported food. Singer and Mason affirm the virtues of minimizing greenhouse gas emissions from food transportation and supporting local family farmers and rural communities. But when they bring out their slide rules and factor in the ethics of importing fairly traded, sustainably produced foods from the world's poorest farmers, the conventional wisdom becomes conditional. 

Much of this conditionality hinges on the fact that "transporting a given amount of food by plane uses the most energy per mile, almost twice as much as road freight and 20 times more energy than sending it by ship or rail," as Singer and Mason write.

The implications can be startling. For example, "taking the average car just five extra miles to visit a local farm or market will put as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as shipping 17 pounds of onions halfway around the world, from New Zealand to London."

Then there's the energy and resource cost of producing locally. Singer and Mason give a few examples to show how that local greenhouse tomato or bag of rice (if you live somewhere like California) can come at a resource toll (fossil fuels to heat the greenhouse, water to irrigate the rice field) that dwarfs the low-input production methods of most smallholder, developing-world farmers and the food-miles lite of shipping from port to port. 

Finally there's the question of who benefits more from your shopping dollar: a local farmer who may (a big may) be living well above the poverty line or an impoverished farmer in the developing world for whom your dollar is equivalent to a day's earnings. 

One of the things I like about this book is that, whatever the subject – farm animal welfare, overfishing, GMOs, big corporate retail vs small independent – Singer and Mason ask you to learn and reason along with them. Their process (aided by reference throughout to three American families who span the ethical-eating spectrum) is scrupulously transparent, a model of how we might think our way through these dilemmas ourselves. 

Getting back to the relative merits of local, imported and fairly traded food, Singer and Mason conclude that there is no across-the-board moral prescription. "However, there is a strong case for buying from the least developed countries, at least when it comes to products transported by ship rather than plane and when a significant proportion of the purchase price is likely to end up in the hands of low-income farmers." 

That's the stuff. Spocklike logic on subjects where most ethical eaters have feelings to spare. 

*I know of at least six others: Fast Food Nation (2001) by Eric Schlosser, The Eco-Foods Guide (2002) by Cynthia Barstow, Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating (2005) by Jane Goodall, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen (2006) by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry, The Ethical Gourmet (2006) by Jay Weinstein and The Omnivore's Dilemma(2006) by Michael Pollan. 

Aquarian co-editor Syd Baumel is the publisher of eatkind.net which is cited in The Way We Eat as "a useful Website for those interested in more compassionate eating."

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I have deleted your comment defending "the compassionate efforts of welfarists."

Several weeks ago, a Facebook page I like shared this status update from the page of the influential animal rights legal scholar and philosopher, Gary Francione.

It epitomized my worst impressions (from a distance) of this intolerant, my-way-or-the-highway abolitionist (not all abolitionists are, by any stretch). As you can see in the Facebook update, Francione jeers the successful efforts of Animals Australia to save over two million animals (and counting) from the well-documented horrors of live export. This is the practice of exporting animals from Australia via long ship journeys to be bred or slaughtered overseas, often where farm animal welfare standards are horrifying, as opposed to merely appalling. Many of these cattle, sheep and goats die enroute - a greater horror than they would likely have experienced if they'd been shipped to slaughter back home; a lesser horror than probably awaited them at their overseas destinations, judging by the investigative work of groups like Animals Australia. 

Rather than jump right into the fray, I read the comments first. Among all the (mostly) sycophantic "right ons," I found one that echoed my own reaction. The writer, after paying respects to the Master and the Community ("Totally agreeing with what everyone's saying. They're going to end up dead, however it happens…."), meekly voiced her concern that live transport might indeed be problematic in its own right: 

"Obviously, slaughter is slaughter, wherever it happens. I do think a long boat journey without food and water beforehand must be particularly horrific though (if it's possible for anything to be more horrific than it already is). Is it welfarist to think this?" 

She ended her comment by writing "Someone may tell me I'm wrong!"

  • Pauline Wooding Totally agreeing with what everyone's saying. They're going to end up dead, however it happens. Just mentioning that part of the point was not just that they're going to another country to be slaughtered by foreigners, etc., etc., but that they spend so long on the boat without food and water. There was the instance a little while back when a boat going to Pakistan was caught in a big storm, or there was a problem with the boat or something and I think it was sailing around for a couple of months (again, without checking back on the precise details). When it eventually landed, thousands of sheep were just dumped, and there was nowhere to put them, so many that hadn't already died ended up dying in the sun. This was the case that seemed to get a lot of people agitated - but may well not be typical, and should not obviously detract from the main point, I know. 

    Obviously, slaughter is slaughter, wherever it happens. I do think a long boat journey without food and water beforehand must be particularly horrific though (if it's possible for anything to be more horrific than it already is). Is it welfarist to think this? I've always felt doubly sorry for the animals that travel from the UK across Europe in terrible conditions without food and water, which isn't anything to do with the countries they're going to, just the conditions they have to endure during the long journey.

    I suppose it's a bit like the rape and being beaten while being raped analogy. Just a question of the degree of suffering. 

    Someone may tell me I'm wrong!
That was my opening. I responded that I believed she wasn't wrong and that the bottom line for me is "what would the animals want?" If I was one of them, I wrote, I would gratefully lick the hand of any human who lightened my load (an animal "welfarist," in other words) and of any human who fought to remove my burden and my children's burden altogether (an abolitionist, or liberationist), even if he or she failed. I would not be so well disposed toward humans who sought to undercut each other in these efforts to benefit me and mine.

A few minutes later, I heard a Facebook chirp. When I returned to Facebook, I was stunned to see the following two replies:
  • Sarah K. Woodcock Syd Baumel, I have deleted your comment defending "the compassionate efforts of welfarists." While they may be motivated by compassion, the effects of their efforts are devastating for animals. Please review our Terms of Use (FB page) and also Professor Francione's website (www.abolitionistapproach.com). Thanks.
  • Gary L. Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Pauline Wooding; Syd Baumel: Sorry, but animals in Australia are, like animals in other countries, transported long distances to Australian slaughterhouses. Many animals are killed or maimed in domestic transport. This idea that Australian slaughter is some "gift" to farm animals shows how deeply confused our thinking has become.

    It is a tragedy that groups like Animals Australia and their counterparts in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere partner with industry to promote "happy" exploitation in various forms. The animal movement should be clear: veganism is the *only* rational response to the recognition that animals matter morally. Animal advocates should never be partnering with industry to try to make the process of exploitation "better." The economic reality that animals are property will always constrain and limit welfare reform to measures that, as a general matter, improve production and are rational for industry to pursue. If the movement spoke with a unified vegan voice, industry would respond with welfare reforms anyway to try to assure the public that veganism was not necessary and that animal products were produced in a "humane" way. When animal advocates partner with industry, the message that is sent to the public is that they can be "compassionate" consumers. That is a message that industry loves. It should never be a message promoted by animal advocates. There is no such thing as "compassionate" consumption. There is veganism and there is direct participation in animal exploitation.

To which I replied:
I'm astounded - jaw-droppingly so - and appalled that my comment was deleted. It's never happened to me before on any forum, any subject, and I've been around for a while. What does this action say about the ability of your wing of the animal rights and welfare movement to tolerate civil disagreement and to be willing to discuss issues in a public forum without suppressing dissenting points of view?  
I'll save this comment because presumably you'll have to delete it too, "bury the evidence." My previous comment - my valued intellectual property, modest as it was - has now been arbitrarilly destroyed by you, Sarah, based on ... what "term of use" was that? Thou shalt not dissent?  Stunning. Absolutely stunning. BTW, Gary, what's the point of my responding to your well-considered comment under conditions like this? Or of anyone responding, unless it's to agree?  
Sure enough, my second comment was gone within 20 or 30 minutes. 

On reflection, it occurred to me that Francione and his Facebook fans were behaving like a cult. So I did what I always do at times like this: I typed "Francione cult" into google. As expected, I wasn't the first person to draw this comparison. Another animal rights person who had drawn the ire of Francione and been banned from his other, website-based forum (since closed) detailed his experience here. Other survivors of Francione narcissism - typically having been "banned" too - weighed in in the comments section. The similarities were striking, right down to some of their word choices, such as describing how "sycophants" are reduced to saying little but "right on!", ironically using the word "master" to describe the repressive autocrat and "This man is a supreme narcissist and this is clearly a cult of personality" (from a commenter who also had her comment deleted on Facebook just two months before). 

I added a comment myself:
Count me among the Facebook deleted. It happened just yesterday, and I was (and still am) so incensed, I'm drafting a blog post to "get even," or, more constructively, add my two cents to the greater subject of how not to participate in a human/animal rights/welfare movement or "Gary Francione has the soul of a totalitarian." Honestly, I've always had a negative reaction to him, but from a distance, not having studied his work, only having read dribs and drabs. I'm a pragmatic abolitionist-welfarist myself and a longtime vegan. But it wasn't the excessively esteemed professor's extreme, polarizing beliefs that turned me yesterday from Francione - meh, to Francione - feh. It was the astoundingly poor character he and his hatchet girl displayed on Facebook. I see from this welcome article and comments - a google search for "Francione" and "cult" brought me here - that he leaves a long wake of such damage behind him.  
Epilogue: A few weeks later, I returned to the scene of the crime and discovered that a week after the initial Francione-approved comments had run their course, someone else had the last word. Perhaps the thought police didn't notice it:

Suzy Baranski I am a vegan and I support the work of Animals Australia. I don't want animals being subjected to the horrors of a long boat journey and the even bigger horrors of going to a middle eastern country (I assume you know what happened in Pakistan). I also give them full support in their campaign to end factory farming. This is all part of the journey towards freedom. Awareness. I know many committed vegans who support Animals Australia 
April 13 at 10:13am

And now I've returned again and yet another dissenting view has eluded the censors:

Denise Danninger I'm sorry, but I don't agree. The exposure, awareness and public outcry over the plight of animals as a result of the groundbreaking work of Animals Australia is unprecedented. And that's what catapulted me into veganism. If you look at the statistics, less animals destined for consumption are being bred in Australia for live export. And that's a logical consequence when live export is reduced (and hopefully one day completely banned). Do you actually believe that through banning live export the number of animals being bred for consumption won't drop? I don't follow you. AA are NOT the bad guys. I find your rubbishing of them disappointing and non-constructive. They are making consumers question their choices. It appears to me that they are guiding people to veganism far more effectively than some others are doing it.
May 10 at 3:57am · Edited

Enjoy the "photographic evidence" while it lasts: 
  • Suzy Baranski I am a vegan and I support the work of Animals Australia. I don't want animals being subjected to the horrors of a long boat journey and the even bigger horrors of going to a middle eastern country (I assume you know what happened in Pakistan). I also give them full support in their campaign to end factory farming. This is all part of the journey towards freedom. Awareness. I know many committed vegans who support Animals Australia
  • Denise Danninger I'm sorry, but I don't agree. The exposure, awareness and public outcry over the plight of animals as a result of the groundbreaking work of Animals Australia is unprecedented. And that's what catapulted me into veganism. If you look at the statistics, less animals destined for consumption are being bred in Australia for live export. And that's a logical consequence when live export is reduced (and hopefully one day completely banned). Do you actually believe that through banning live export the number of animals being bred for consumption won't drop? I don't follow you. AA are NOT the bad guys. I find your rubbishing of them disappointing and non-constructive. They are making consumers question their choices. It appears to me that they are guiding people to veganism far more effectively than some others are doing it.

"Because we can" is no excuse

“Because we can.”

“Because we always have.”

“Because it's legal.”

“Because it's normal.”

These are not excuses for behaviours that challenge us as moral beings now, today.


I haven't seen The Ghosts in Our Machine yet. But this new documentary looks like a game-changer to me, much as Peaceable Kingdom was for so many who saw it and - as one friend dragged there by his daughter reacted - immediately transformed how they ate (my friend became a vegan, and some 7 or 8 years later he hasn't looked back).

Check out all the moving HD previews of this new film right here.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Indecent Eggsposure: How Canada's Eggs are Laid

This is a story I wrote for The Aquarian back in 2006. At the time, Canadian consumers exposed to gruesome exposés of factory farming south of the border commonly took comfort in the assumption that "we're Canadians. We do things different up here." Animal advocates knew better. Today, many Canadian exposés later, that illusion is starting to crumble.

from The Aquarian, Summer 2006

How Canada's Eggs are Laid


It looks like news-at-six video of a puppy mill bust. Except in this case the filthy, neglected animals are hens, and the setting is a modern industrial-strength egg barn near Guelph, Ontario.

The camera sweeps across a long aisle lined high on both sides with “batteries” (stacks) of wire cages, then slowly pans across a single tier. The hens inside are packed so tight they can barely move. They are a pathetic sight. 

Where there should be ivory-white feathers, there are spiky quills and tattered grey coats. The birds in the lower tiers are caked with feces from the cages above. Below the towers of cages, a displaced hen squats helplessly on a manure pile. Another lies dead in the aisle. Everything is cloaked in filth.

“This is a life sentence with no parole. Their only escape is slaughter,” the video's titles conclude.

Viewable on the website of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals (CCFA), humanefood.ca, “The Truth About Canada's Egg Industry” is produced by CCFA and the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS). The grainy footage was shot by an anonymous university student who snuck into the barn last summer and broke the story in his student newspaper. In October, a media blitz by CCFA and VHS briefly brought the story to national attention.

Animal scientists and veterinarians quoted on CCFA's website were appalled by the footage. Mohan Raj, a prominent poultry scientist at the University of Bristol, was shocked that such “extreme cruelty to layer hens” could exist in Canada.

“Considering the fact that birds appear to be featherless and fecal ammonia is an irritant and it can burn the skin, I would consider this as a serious welfare problem,” Raj wrote. “The dead bird in the aisle could have escaped from the cage and, after prolonged suffering, died due to deprivation of food and water.”

Debra Probert, Executive Director of VHS, thinks the video, like similar shockers shot south of the border, should be a wake-up call for Canadians. 

“Government and industry are constantly reassuring consumers that things are better for farm animals here in Canada,” she tells Canadian Press (CP) in October. “We have long suspected that's not the case and now we have the proof – this footage shows filthy, disgusting, hideously abusive conditions.”

Particularly disturbing is the pedigree of the farm. The owner, Lloyd Weber, is a veterinarian and a member of the Dean's Veterinary Advisory Council of the University of Guelph, one of Canada's foremost agricultural colleges. His barn, LEL Farms, is a tour site for agriculture students. “It’s difficult not to speculate that if this farm, with such esteemed connections, is so bad, what are other farms like across Canada?” the VHS comments in its newsletter. “We have no reason to believe this is not the norm.”

Weber and the egg industry defend themselves in national news stories. Conceding that a dead bird may have been left in an aisle, the veterinarian insists he lives up to the closest thing Canada has to laws governing how farmers should treat their animals: the Canadian Agri-food Research Council's Recommended Codes of Practice. “The [stocking] density does meet the [Code's] guidelines for housing birds in cages,” he tells CP. An Ontario Egg Producers spokesperson tells CP: “We encourage producers to live up [to the codes]. A happy hen is a producing hen.”

Code of Practice or License to Abuse?

The bitter irony for Canada's 26 million egg-laying hens (three million in Manitoba), 98 percent of whom live in large battery-cage operations like Weber's averaging over 17,000 hens per barn, is that Weber's self-defense is probably valid. 

“The LEL farm is not that different from other battery hen farms. Pretty much status quo,” according to Stephanie Brown, a director of CCFA. “Might be a tad dirtier, and the cages are old, but it's battery-hen reality.” 

Brown is a former president of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, the only animal welfare organization ever permitted by the Canadian Agri-Food Research Council (CARC) to participate in formulating the Recommended Codes of Practice. CARC is an NGO funded by government and industry and comprised mostly of representatives of the regulated industries themselves (50 percent), government and academia. There is little about the conditions at LEL Farms that would run afoul of those Codes (which can be read on the CARC website). In Ontario, where the Codes' recommendations for treatment of animals on the farm are just that – recommendations – as they are in every province except New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba, no charges have been laid against LEL Farms. 

The primary code for Canada's 1000+ registered egg producers (producers who have 500 or more hens – almost all the hens in Canada) is the 2003 Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets, Layers and Spent Fowl. It gives producers the green light to house their hens in wire-mesh battery cages without litter and just 67 square inches of floor space per four-pound bird. 

Look down at the outspread pages of The Aquarian, 22 inches by 15.5 (341 square inches). The Code would allow you to house five hens on that area, day-in, day-out, until their egg production wanes – typically 12 months – and then kill them.

Because chronically overcrowded, stressed-out chickens – especially the genetically high-strung White Leghorns that lay most of the industrial world's white eggs, and at three times the rate of their ancestors – can easily peck each other to death, the Code allows egg producers to cut off  the pointy, nerve-rich ends of their beaks (“debeaking”), without anesthetic or painkillers. Some leading poultry scientists believe the mutilated birds suffer “phantom limb pain” for the rest of their lives. Regardless, for a chicken, losing its beak is like losing a right hand for a human. And they still peck each other anyway: pulling out feathers and exposing bare skin to infections and ammonia burns from the barn's abundant chicken waste. 

The Code's acceptance of the now universal battery cage production system first introduced in the 1940s, perpetuates what poultry scientists and bioethicists commonly regard as an animal welfare disaster. As American philosopher and animal scientist Bernard Rollin, summarizes the problem: “Virtually all aspects of hen behavior are thwarted by battery cages: social behavior, nesting behavior, the ability to move and flap wings, dustbathing, space requirements, scratching for food, exercise, pecking at objects on the ground.” 

According to the experts, the hens pay a serious price for such major deprivations as:
  • Not being able to fully stretch or flap their wings. The average hen needs 144 square inches to stretch her wings; 303 to flap them. The Code gives her 67. She will try to flap her wings anyway. Temple Grandin, a renowned farm animal welfare scientist, described the consequences at a large battery egg operation: “Egg layers bred for maximum egg production and the most efficient feed conversion were nervous wrecks that had beaten off half their feathers by constant flapping against the cage.”
  • Not being able to build and lay their eggs in a nest.  “The worst torture to which a battery hen is exposed is the inability to retire somewhere for the laying act,” the Nobel prize-winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz wrote in 1980. “For the person who knows something about animals, it is truly heartrending to watch how a chicken tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow cagemates to search there in vain for cover.” She must relive this ordeal every 30 hours.
  • Not being able to perch and roost above ground.  Perching above ground and roosting in the shelter of a tree are a fixtures of the chicken's natural repertoire and exercise activity. Entire flocks roost together at night to stay clear of predators. Neither perching nor normal exercise are possible in a battery cage, which is so low the birds can't even adopt their standing alert posture. According to Scottish poultry scientist, Michael Baxter, “The fact that hens are restricted from exercising to such an extent that they are unable to maintain the strength of their bones is probably the greatest single indictment of the battery cage. The increased incidence of bone breakage which results is a serious welfare insult.” Those broken bones are never treated. Neither is the osteoporosis that gradually consumes most battery hens.
  • Not being able to establish a pecking order. According to Baxter: “When crowded together this regulatory system [pecking order] breaks down and the hens appear to be in a chronic state of social stress, perpetually trying to get away from their cagemates, not able to express dominance relations by means of spacing and not even able to resolve social conflict by means of aggression.” 
Inhumanity in the egg industry begins in the hatchery. Layer chickens are bred to produce eggs, not flesh. The male chicks – seven million a year in Manitoba alone – are nothing but a garbage disposal problem. The humane solution favoured by the Code is to feed them, live, into a high-speed macerator (grinder) – the industrial equivalent of a kitchen garburator. 

The female chicks may legally meet the same fate after their year of service. “To my knowledge,” Penny Kelly, General Manager of Manitoba Egg Producers, informs me, “several high-speed macerators are in use locally.” 

“I have very serious welfare concerns,” writes Mohan Raj in an email. “Some birds may try to escape from being macerated while their legs are caught between the blades of the macerator leading to severe pain and suffering.”

Who's Minding the Hens? 

As permissive as it is, the Recommended Code of Practice is law, not recommendation, in Manitoba. Unfortunately, enforcement is strictly complaint-driven, according to the province's spokesperson, Gus Wruck, a veterinarian in the Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives. Those complaints arrive in Wruck's office via a confidential "Animal Care Hotline": (204) 945-8000.

In an industry that exists in windowless rural buildings where neither the public, the media nor animal protection groups are welcome, such complaints can only come from insiders or break-and-enter activists. There has only been one complaint in five years, Wruck writes in an email interview. But he does point out that “registered egg farms in Manitoba are randomly inspected a minimum of once a year under the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency’s (CEMA) Animal Care Certification Program. The third party inspectors are the same individuals who conduct inspections under the national on-farm HACCP-based food safety program, Start Clean–Stay CleanTM. This program has been accredited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.” (HACCP stands for “hazard analysis critical control points,” a widely used inspection protocol.) The program, Wruck elaborates, is based on the 2003 Code of Practice. 

But Wruck's replies leave many of my questions unanswered. CEMA ignores my emailed requests for information, and when I call, their spokesperson, Bernadette Cox, refuses to talk to me – “because you're a known animal rights activist.” 

“Is that information available to anybody?” I ask her. 

“It's available to our producers.” 

“I see. It's not available to the public?” 

“Yeah. That's all I'm gonna say to you, Syd.” 

With help from Google and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), I do learn that – contrary to the impression given by Wruck's statements – CEMA's program is voluntary and not accredited or overseen in any way by CFIA (a government agency). 

Turning to Manitoba Egg Producers, my questions are met with the same ambiguous descriptions of the program as Wruck's. In fact, General Manager Penny Kelly's language is virtually identical, as if government and industry are reading from the same playbook.

Kelly does, however, disclose that “99 percent” of the province's registered egg producers participate in the Program – and all have passed. 

But in a 2003 story in the Manitoba Cooperator about CEMA's then new Animal Care Program I read: “There's no actual pass or fail, but a benchmark score to establish a satisfactory level of care will be developed, said Kelly.” So I ask Kelly what “passing” means today – perfect score? “E” for effort? 

“'Passing' means just that,” she replies cryptically. “The Program is subject to ongoing review and will continue to evolve. Similar to implementation of the national on-farm food safety program, I expect the 'bar' will continue to be raised to encourage excellence in animal care.” 

I press for clarification about where that bar now stands. “Would the registered barn secretly videotaped near Guelph last summer – LEL Farms – have passed?” I ask. “If not, what would have given it a failing grade?”

I have pressed too hard. 

“I have attempted to address your questions in a straightforward and factual manner,” Kelly replies, “and see no merit in further dialogue.”

A few years ago in the United States, CEMA's counterpart, the United Egg Producers, also instituted a voluntary animal care certification program based on minimal welfare standards – including 67 square inches of floor space per hen. Animal protection groups complained to the Better Business Bureau that the industry's “Animal-Care Certified” logo was deceiving consumers. The BBB agreed, and so did the Federal Trade Commission. The logo now reads “United Egg Producers Certified.” 

Putting the Chicken Before the Egg   

In 1999, following years of public and scientific opposition to battery cages, the European Union began to phase them out. They will be illegal in 2012. In the United States, animal protection groups from the Humane Society of the United States on down have persuaded a growing number of foodstore chains, restaurants, college campuses, cafeterias and corporations to boycott battery eggs. In Canada, the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals (CCFA) and the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) are leading the charge to make life easier for the hardest working animal in agribusiness. In addition to publicizing the exposé of LEL Farms, they have: 

  • asked CFIA to adopt another EU policy and force retailers to label all battery eggs as “eggs from caged hens” and not greenwash such products with comfort words like “farm fresh” and “natural.”  
  • launched a campaign to persuade foodsellers – beginning with grocery giant Loblaw (owner of the Real Canadian Superstore, Loblaws and other chains) – to voluntarily make these labelling changes and to sell at least 50 percent of their eggs from noncaged hens. To pressure Loblaw, CCFA and its members (which include the Winnipeg Humane Society and my own Eatkind.net) and allies (locally, AnimalWatch Manitoba and the Winnipeg Vegetarian Association) are distributing 100,000 “Put the Chicken Before the Egg” postcards to Canadians to send to Loblaw's president. The postcard can be seen on CCFA's website at humanefood.ca/docs/Loblaw-postcard.pdf and ordered free for bulk distribution from CCFA.  
  • created a splashy educational website, chickenout.ca, and a scholarly monograph on battery egg production viewable at humanefood.ca.  
  • launched an action alert email list on Canadian farm animal welfare issues. (To subscribe, send your name and email address to John Youngman, jcy@mts.net.)  

There are kinder alternatives to battery eggs. The best places to find them are natural foodstores and other conscientious sellers, such as those listed in The Aquarian's “Ethical Food Market” (aquarianonline.com/guide.htm). 

Knowing how to read labels is key. 

If the label says “free run” and the egg producer follows the Recommended Code of Practice, the hens live indoors with access to nesting boxes. But they may “run” on as little as a square foot (144 square inches) of space per bird on a litterless, wire grid floor in flocks of thousands. With so many birds so densely housed, these free run hens may also need to have their beaks trimmed.

If the label says “free range” and the producer follows the Code, the hens are free run (as above) with access to a well-protected outdoor area. But that access can consist of a single “pop-hole” in a barn full of thousands of hens that leads onto a tiny, grassless paddock. 

Short of firsthand information about a particular egg farm, the best assurance of humane animal care is third-party certification, whether certified organic, certified humane or both. Eggs that are certified organic by the Organic Producers Association of Manitoba (OPAM) or the USDA come from farms that must provide their hens a “sufficiently” generous free-range lifestyle. Unfortunately, the requirements are general – “sufficient room to move around,” “sufficient fresh air and daylight” – and make no mention of specific needs, such as nests and perches.

Humane-society certified eggs are available in Manitoba and at least one other province, BC. Hens that lay WHS Certified (Winnipeg Humane Society) eggs must have at least two square feet (576 square inches) each, uncaged of course, and while outdoor access isn't required, “birds should be able to engage in natural behaviors such as dust bathing, wing flapping, preening, perching and nesting” with “access to well maintained litter.”  Beak trimming is allowed if “all other efforts to control problem behavior have proven unsuccessful.” Nature's Farm, a Steinbach company, produces two lines of WHS Certified eggs: “Free Run” and “Organic Omega3.” According to the company's website, the hens live in “free-run ‘birdhouse’ aviaries....[that] incorporate natural features such as sheltered, darkened nest boxes, scratching and dustbathing areas, and elevated multi-level perches that enable the birds to roost, fly freely, and to ‘populate’ the vertical dimension of the birdhouse.”

Unfortunately, even the most humanely produced commercial eggs involve needless killing of the newborn male chicks and the laying hens when they are no longer productive.

Arguably, the only truly humane eggs come from backyard flocks or sanctuaries where the birds, like companion animals, are treated kindly all their natural lives. 

Aquarian co-editor Syd Baumel is a known animal rights activist with close ties to the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, AnimalWatch Manitoba, the Winnipeg Vegetarian Association, Eatkind.net and the Winnipeg Humane Society.