Free or Foul? Is it one or the other when it comes to Egg Farming?

As a consumer and lover of eggs I felt that I was fairly educated on the different types of eggs available at the grocery store. I typically buy organic eggs and feel the extra price is worth paying for a high quality product – that’s a philosophy I stick to. You get what you pay for, right? I will almost always pay a bit extra if I get something that is better, will last longer, will retain resale value etc. I felt organic eggs are better because the shells are usually harder and more robust. That has to indicate a better quality egg…right?

Last week I went to a commercial egg farm.

Farming is no longer of red barns and crowing roosters, in fact, there wasn’t a rooster in sight at Burnbrae farms where we toured. Instead, here’s what I saw.

Types of Chicken housing in Today’s Farming

Conventional: Conventional (also called battery caged) farmed eggs have 5 or so chickens in a cage, side by side along the barn in rows and stacked several rows high. Chickens have free access to food and water. Manure falls down to a belt that carries it away from the birds-it does not fall onto the birds below. Eggs fall to a different belt and are carried to the grading facility. Not much else to say. These birds looked to be in good condition from what I could see. I was looking into the barn from a viewing window in all instances. Conventional housing will be phased out over the next 20 years.

conventional housed chicken farm

Conventional Chicken Farming

Furnished: Eggs from this type of housing are sold under the “Nestlaid” label by Burnbrae. Other brands may not differentiate between conventional and furnished housing. In these cages, chickens have access to nest boxes for laying eggs in (the yellow area,) as well as perches. There are typically more chickens in these cages than in conventional housing but the cages are also twice as big, about 8-10 birds will live in each.  As with conventional housing, chickens are held in stacked rows in the barn with manure belts to keep them separated from their refuse. These birds also looked to be in good condition from what I could see.

furnished chicken housing

Furnished ‘Nestlaid’ Chicken Farming

Free Run: This type of housing allows the birds to run the space of the barn – there are no cages. Chickens have access to nest boxes and perches as well as access to the floor for dust bathing (or rather, manure bathing!) There were several levels for the birds with ramps for them to walk up and down. Birds in this system need to be trained to use the levels and nests And the farmers need to be more vigilant at protecting them from feather picking. These birds seemed to like scratching around on the floor but from what I could see, some were missing feathers.

free run hen

free run chicken barn

Organic and Free Range: I did not see birds housed in these systems as I believe they did not have these sorts of facilities at the location I was visiting. Free range birds have access to the outdoors weather permitting. Organic eggs come from chickens that are both free range AND are fed an organic diet.

Chicken Facts: 

Chickens operate in a system of dominance where higher order chickens can peck at lower order birds. This means that if there are many birds in a flock there will be many hens vying for the top spots. They can be aggressive and will pluck the feathers out of birds they see as weaker to show them ‘who is boss.’

Chickens in the wild are usually found in flocks of about 5.

Chickens really love to have a nesting box and perch as it makes them feel safe.

Chickens will flock together and leave empty space in the barn. They don’t spread out even if they have the space to. You can see this in the second photo of the free run barn above. They may even pile on top of each other to get close to a farm worker or doorway out of curiosity.

Chickens are tropical birds and should not go outside in poor weather.

Chickens are omnivores and should not be fed a vegetarian diet no matter what A&W tells you. In the wild chickens will eat bugs, worms and even dead animals they come across.

Chickens in Canada are vaccinated but are not given steroids nor hormones. Antibiotics are used as necessary but methods are in place to reduce usage.

Sustainability:

Margaret Hudson, President of Burnbrae spoke a lot about sustainability. She was passionate about the welfare of the chickens but revealed that much about the industry is ruled by marketing in response to consumer wants. For instance, consumers will not buy free run eggs with white shells. Consumers generally believe that brown shell eggs are ‘better’ than white ones and the reality is that it’s just a different breed of hen who lays a brown egg vs a white egg. There is no difference in nutritional value. Still, free run eggs are usually brown because that’s what consumers expect to see.

Margaret shared that when it comes to a sustainability standpoint, conventional and furnished housings are more efficient and have a much lower carbon footprint than free run housing.  Conventional and furnished housings also have lower bird mortality rates because birds are caged in more natural flock sizes. Farmers, however, are trying to please consumers by providing free run, free range and organic eggs, despite the higher costs and larger demands on resources such as land.

Will I change my buying habits?

Yeah, you know, I was firmly in the organic camp prior to visiting Burnbrae. I believed the chickens had a better life and that organic eggs were better for the planet. Now I am not so sure that I was right. Sustainability is about finding the best way to feed our people by balancing out the welfare of the animals with the impact on the planet. By those standards, furnished housing is by far the winner. The birds were in great condition, they had nest boxes and perches to make them happy but were protected from disease and each other. Carbon footprints were lower and conditions for workers were better.

Along with buying eggs at the grocery store, I’ll also be mindful of the marketing that comes by way of restaurants and fast food industries trying to get my business. So many chains are advertising that they now only provide eggs that are cage free. What they are doing is driving the industry in the wrong direction not because they believe in sustainability but because they believe consumers want cage free eggs. Consumers like you and I, who just don’t want to pay for animals to suffer. It turns out that chickens are better off in a cage than in a large herd of thousands of birds. I didn’t know that and I’m sure I’m not alone in my misdirected thinking. I’d like to call on marketers to be more responsible with their communications. The education of consumers falls partially on their shoulders – not every consumer has the ability to visit a farm and see for themselves like I did.

If it were a perfect world and we could raise our egg laying hens in a chicken paradise we would have organic birds in free range flocks of 5 or 6 that would never be stricken with disease. Right now, we can’t have that. We have millions to feed and it seems folly to subscribe to a free run system that’s less efficient, worse for the environment, and results in a higher cost product for the sake of a perceived chicken happiness value that as far as I could see, just isn’t there.

Resources:

Humane Society – Understanding Mortality Rates of Laying Hens in Cage-Free Egg Production Systems (although this is biased, there is still some good information here. Just know that at the end, they basically say that a shorter, better life is more desirable than a longer, not as good life. Like, sure, I’ll choose to live 5 years less if I could just have a chair to sit in. Come on. Still, it’s worth the read)

BCSPCA – The Future of Confinement Housing for Egg-Laying Hens This was a good article that goes into greater detail regarding conventional housing systems and their alternatives.

The Globe and Mail – The cage free egg trend; is it just a shell game? This details more about the marketing aspect of why the industry is moving towards cage free.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency – Avian Bio-security This is information on avian flu and bio-security – a huge risk for organic and free range birds.  Avian flu greatly impacts the sustainability factor.

Chicken Farmers of Canada – On antibiotic use

The Egg Farmers of Canada – The Journey of the Egg

Burnbrae Farms – Animal Care


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Comments

  1. This is really interesting. I find it funny that people expect free run eggs to be brown! It is interesting to see what perception and consumer expectations change what the products are offered. I want the chickens to be safe and happy, and it seems that having them in roomy cages might be a better solution. SO INTERESTING.

  2. This was so interesting and enlightening! I actually just had a conversation with my nutritionist about how organic chicken is not the best choice nutritionally, as the chickens that are healthiest are those that are allowed to eat bugs, etc and have an omnivourous diet. I definitely need to do some more research on this. It’s sad to know that so much of the push in the animal welfare industry is done by people who are uneducated in the area of animal welfare (i.e. us, the consumers). My knowledge of chicken welfare is very close to nothing but what I hear from the media. Sometimes I feel like we are doing more damage to our planet under the guise of trying to make it better, you know? Thanks for the post Heather. Looking forward to hearing more.

    • Amy, your comment regarding animal welfare being pushed by people who are uneducated is bang on. People just don’t do their research before campaigning and driving the industry in the wrong direction.

  3. Dear Heather,

    I saw the Facebook post from Egg Farmers of Canada, and read your blog. As I am sure you are receptive to respective dialogue and alternate views as it relates to food and, in particular, egg farming, I wish to share with you and your readers a slightly different perspective.

    Cages – whether battery or enriched, the operative word here is “cage”. No animal, whether fowl, quadrupedal or bipedal desires, seeks out, or prefers to be in a cage where freedom of movement is restricted and natural behaviours are denied. Nests and perches, especially where the number of these do not equal the number of birds contained in an enriched cage, is not reasonable compensation. Enriched cages are only slight better than a battery cage, and given the alternative (i.e. no cages) this is a logical fallacy called relative privation. It is important to note that 90% of all eggs brought to market in Canada are a result of intensive confinement. And there is a reason that the Egg Farmers of Canada are phasing out these systems – they are cruel. Despite this, most grocery store chains, restaurants, and food services companies across Canada have already committed to going cage-free in the next several years well ahead of Egg Farmers of Canada’s commitment. This demonstrates that the food services industry, ethically speaking, is way ahead of the Egg Farmers of Canada. Also, the industry’s explanation that these “housing systems” are to protect the birds from predators, is nonsense. The reason they use these intensive confinement practices is to maximize yield and use the least amount of real estate in which to do it (i.e. profit). The “predator” explanation is not the motivating factor and is merely spin used to assuage justified criticism of their cruel and inhumane practices.

    Mutilations – all female birds destined for an egg farm, like the Burnbrae facility, are generally mutilated at a young age. Beak-trimming is a routine practice that is performed usually by a hot, metal blade or guillotine and is very painful. This is done to inhibit or curb carcass scratching and aggressive behaviours towards other birds competing for space as a result of intensive confinement (see Cages above). Behaviour, I might add that would not emerge if not for the stress induced as a result of this confinement which is a completely unnatural state of existence for these intelligent, sensitive beings.

    Hatcheries – what Burnbrae and the Egg Farmers of Canada didn’t show you was a hatchery. After incubation and hatching, the male and female chicks are put onto a conveyor system, not unlike what manufacturers of parts and inanimate objects would use. Males and females are sexed – human workers are trained to quickly determine whether a chick is a boy or girl. Females carry on down the conveyor system, males are sent in a different direction. Baby, male chicks in Canada, for the most part are ground up alive by an auger or shredded alive in a macerator (another name for an industrial wood-chipper). Please see the following link filmed by an Australian animal rights group – note: what you will see in this video is standard practice in Canada: https://vimeo.com/174927390

    This next ink is a simple 3 minute video with 360 degree view (depending on your internet browser) of hens in a battery cage like the ones you saw. This was filmed in the United States who have invented these practices post-World War II and which have been adopted around the world including Canada. The purpose of this video, is to briefly demonstrate how this kind of existence, day in, day out, for up to over 500 days, is deeply disturbing to anyone with compassion for animals. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDDg2AAuRYg

    The last link was an undercover video filmed at Gray-Ridge Farms in Listowel, Ontario. Gary-Ridge is one of the country’s largest egg farms and was touted by the industry as a model farm. Even the head of this farm declared this was unacceptable and, as is usual for the industry once these stories break, explained it as a rare exception – it is not. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cz-hPqUh444

    It is also important to note that egg laying hens produce up to an egg a day in their current form. A form, I might add, that has been brought about by hundreds and even thousands of years of human intervention in the natural evolution of this species. In other words, humans have acted as an artificial agent for natural selection. Hens, not unlike most species, lay eggs solely for procreation. Typically, wild jungle fowl (from which hens descend), and like most birds, lay eggs once a year to produce a brood of chicks. Due to our interventionism, hens now lay an unnaturally excessive number of eggs. This is very taxing on their reproductive systems and body. Often, hens can develop prolapses – this is where their insides literally fall out of their bodies due to the number and unnaturally large eggs they produce daily.

    Lastly, once these hens ability to lay eggs falls off (known as “spent hens”), they are no longer profitable for the farmer and are sent to slaughter. They are manhandled, thrown into cages, stacked and loaded onto trucks and hauled to a slaughterhouse. This is done in all weather conditions and birds can be transported legally from 36 to up to 52 hours with no food, water nor rest. Once at the slaughterhouse, they are live shackled upside down onto a conveyor systems. Dragged through a stun bath (electrified vat of water), then have their throats slit and put into a steaming hot vat of water for de-feathering. Some birds can even make it that far while still semi-conscious.

    As far as nutrition goes, I’ll simply say this: there is no biological imperative to eat eggs. We do so only for taste and tradition. Any goodness eggs may contain, can be acquired through a plethora of other foods that require no animal cruelty to get and do not contain bad constituents like choline and cholesterol which have been shown to contribute towards heart disease, diabetes and prostrate cancer. By way of example: http://nutritionfacts.org/video/eggs-choline-and-cancer/

    Thank you for the opportunity to share my views and perspective.

    Respectfully,

    Nigel Osborne

    • Hi Nigel,

      Thanks for your thoughts – you’re entitled to them. I will just say that there are many, many (MANY) things about the food industry that aren’t ideal. Abandoning the farming of eggs (which, I would assume is your ideal) would be a great disservice to the people of Canada. If the entire country were to begin living as vegans tomorrow we would starve. Whether or not human beings SHOULD live as vegans is another debate which I won’t get into.

      The truth of the matter is that we have millions of people to feed. Millions of people who live in cities who can’t walk down the road to pick up a dozen eggs from the hobby farmer who has a small flock that lives as naturally as nature intended. No matter what we do, these millions of people are not going to be able to live as vegans because there just isn’t the land and climate available here to us. Vegan living isn’t sin free either, there is much damage done to the planet in the growing, processing and transportation of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains.

      It’s our duty to feed our people as best we can, while treating the animals and our planet as best as we possibly can. Eggs are a sustainable way to do that. I think that being able to use a bird both for it’s eggs and for it’s meat is a responsible practice. I know you won’t agree with that and trust me when I say that I do not want animals to suffer – ever. I don’t. I do believe, from what I saw, that the farmers in this country are doing their best to feed our population and treat their animals well. Canadian farmers are regulated to do so. There are always bad apples in every bunch, yes. But for the most part, everyone is trying to do a good job.

      • Heather, thank you for your reply. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how the abandoning of eggs from our plates would be a “disservice to the people of Canada”. There is no biological imperative to eat eggs, in other words, they are not essential to human health nor longevity. This is not a debatable point, but rather a matter of fact. Choline and cholesterol, which eggs contain significant amounts, are not a biological requirement for humans, and as one of the links I provided in my initial comments (one of many I could offer up) have shown, independent nutritional Harvard research has found a link between choline and prostate cancer especially as choline “converts gut bacteria to trimethylamine in the liver”, which can increase inflammation and promote prostate cancer to a lethal disease”. If anything, promoting the reduced or eliminated consumption of eggs may in fact, provide an essential service to Canadians.

        From a practicality standpoint, “living as vegans tomorrow” inducing nationwide starvation is a silly proposition since the country isn’t going to go vegan tomorrow, ergo, this isn’t an argument against it. Nor is land allocation since animal agriculture devotes far more land to produce protein that could be achieved with plant-based proteins, especially when one considers the amount of land needed to grow food (plants) to feed the hundred’s-of-millions of animals for up to 2 years before they are slaughtered. Besides, I’m not proposing every one go “vegan tomorrow”, I’m merely pointing out in my comments and the links I provided, that egg farming is anything but the idyllic and bucolic farming practice it is made out to be by the industry.

        In particular, I wish to emphasize the Vimeo link I provided (and I don’t know if you watched it), which shows the practice of shredding, baby male chicks alive. This is a horrific practice by the industry and I cannot imagine anyone, you nor your readers, could look at this not in shock and horror at the brutality of this method of discarding what the industry views as a “waste product”. Even EU member states are pledging to move towards in-ovo sexing to eliminate this cruel practice, but not the Canadian egg industry.

        Furthermore, and as you stated, the industry is abandoning battery cages – 20 years from now. Well, let’s be honest, they are simply advocating eliminating battery cages and moving to enriched cages. Enriched cages are only slightly, less cruel. When humane societies across the country raid puppy mills, where these dogs are kept in small wire cages, the public is outraged. When the egg industry does it, it’s called “farming” and the public doesn’t bat an eyelid – this is an ethical double standard. Hens are no more/less cognitively complex and sensitive than dogs of cats, not that cognitive ability should be held up as a metric or standard by which we (humans) should withhold or extend moral consideration to animals.

        The fact is, almost the entire food services industry in Canada (restaurants, fast food chains, grocery stores, caterers, etc.) have all pledged to remove caged-eggs from their supply-chain over the next several years, which is a timeline well before what the egg industry has pledged. And I wish to be clear, the food services industry will not be moving to enriched cages but to much more humane methods.

        I would encourage you and your readers to view the original links I provided. I would also encourage you to reach out to your egg industry contacts to verify the information I have provided. I wish you much success with your blog and hope that if you are true to your own words, that you, “don’t want animals to suffer – ever”, then you will openly oppose the use of battery cages, maceration and mutilations as the cruel nature of these practices are, quite frankly, self-evident.

        Best regards,
        Nigel Osborne

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