from The Aquarian, Summer 2006
How Canada's Eggs are Laid
By SYD BAUMEL
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.”
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, firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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.