Burnbrae Farms, which supplies eggs to grocery store chains and McDonald's restaurants across the country, has suspended egg purchases from two Alberta farms featured in a video shot secretly by an animal rights organization that shows chickens living in inhumane conditions.
The large agribusiness that supplies eggs to various retail, industrial and food service operations in Canada said in a statement Monday that it finds the practices depicted in the hidden-camera footage "disturbing and unacceptable."
"Burnbrae Farms does not tolerate animal abuse, and we have suspended the purchase of eggs from the farms depicted in the video pending full investigation," the company said. "Burnbrae Farms is committed to treating all of our hens in a safe and humane manner and we expect all of our suppliers to do the same."
The video, filmed last summer at Ku-Ku Farms in Morinville, Alta., and Creekside Grove Farms in Spruce Grove, Alta., shows thousands of chickens crammed into filthy wire battery cages, in some instances with dead hens left lying next to them.
Workers on the farms can be seen using a method called "thumping" to kill sick or injured chickens, smashing the birds against a hard surface. Some birds that survive the ordeal are left in garbage bags together with a pile of already dead chicks.
An investigator with Mercy for Animals Canada, the local wing of the California-based animal rights group, secretly shot the footage while employed as a farm worker at the two farms, which are about 35 kilometres north and west of Edmonton, respectively.
McDonald's eggs didn't come from Alberta, supplier says
In a letter to McDonald's sent after the hidden-camera footage was shown on CTV's investigative television program W5 last week, Burnbrae Farms assures the fast food chain that while it has bought eggs from Ku-Ku Farms, none of them have been sold to McDonald's Canada. The company said no eggs supplied to Canadian McDonald's operations were sourced in Alberta.
A copy of the letter was included as part of a news release put out by McDonald's Canada.
"We care about the humane treatment of animals and believe animals should be free from cruelty, abuse and neglect — abuse is never tolerated," the company said in the release.
"We have strict policies in place concerning the treatment of animals that our suppliers must adhere to at all times. We also work with our suppliers and outside experts to continuously improve our standards and practices, both within McDonald’s and across the industry."
Industry group investigating
Earlier Monday, Egg Farmers of Canada, the industry's marketing and lobbying organization, which is in charge of inspecting Canada's chicken farms, also condemned the practices shown in the video. It said it is investigating the footage and stressed that the disturbing scenes do not reflect common practice in the industry.
'I share in the public's response to the video. The images were unacceptable.'— Peter Clarke, Egg Farmers of Canada
"As a fifth-generation egg farmer and chair of our industry, I have visited hundreds of Canada's more than 1,000 egg farms. I have never seen hens treated in the manner shown," said the group's chairman, Peter Clarke, in a statement.
"I share in the public's response to the video. The images were unacceptable. However, I object to any perception that this is in any way common, tolerated or representative. It simply is not."
The Ku-Ku facility houses about 120,000 hens while Creekside has about 100,000, and both are operated by the same owner, who, W5 reported, sits on the Egg Farmers of Alberta board of directors.
The animal rights group alleges Creekside supplies chicks to Ku-Ku, which sells eggs to Burnbrae Farms
Mercy for Animals describes Burnbrae as "McDonald's Canada's exclusive provider of eggs for Egg McMuffins" — although as indicated above, Burnbrae insists none of those eggs comes from Alberta.
Still, the group couldn't resist playing up the imagery of a supply chain tainted by even an indirect association with the farms in question.
"Every Egg McMuffin represents misery and deprivation for a hen who is crammed into a cage so small she can't even spread her wings or walk," it said in a news release.
Crammed, filthy conditions
The W5 report said the video taken at Creekside shows hens crammed 50 to a cage, standing on barren wire, where they will spend the first 20 weeks of their lives. Other hens can be seen clambering over them to get at food and water and occasionally escaping only to end up on the hopper, "where they are covered in feces and sometimes mangled by the machinery," the report says.
A University of Guelph expert on hen raising who helped draft the National Farm Animal Care Council's code of practice reviewed the footage and told Mercy for Animals and W5 the methods seen in the footage are not acceptable practices in the industry.
"The high number of trapped, sick and injured birds in the cages, as well as those forced to live on the manure belt, is unacceptable," said Ian Duncan, a professor of applied ethology at the southwestern Ontario university. "Additionally, the killing methods used in this facility, namely, throwing chicks against a hard surface or suffocating them in garbage bags, is completely unacceptable."
Voluntary code of practice
Handling of animals on farms such as those that appear in the video is governed only by a voluntary code of practice, and inspections are conducted by Egg Farmers of Canada and its provincial branches, which have boards that include some of the very farmers they are charged with overseeing.
W5 found that the industry group tends to focus more on whether eggs are safe for consumption and whether the farmer has the right number of chickens allotted under the industry's market quota system rather than on the well-being of the animals laying the eggs.
The Mercy for Animals investigator, who is reportedly still working undercover for the group, told the program that when she was at Creekside Grove, workers were given 24 hours' advance notice of inspectors' visits to have time to clean the barns and that the facility ultimately passed the inspection.
When Egg Farmers of Canada found out W5 planned to air the Alberta footage, it sent out an advisory to farmers asking them not to allow media on their premises.
The investigative program also met with resistance from the owner of the two farms, who referred the program's reporters to Egg Farmers of Alberta, which refused an on-air interview before it had fully assessed the situation and determined whether corrective action was required.
On Monday, Egg Farmers of Canada said its inspectors adhere to rigorous standards and that if the organization finds problems at the two farms in question, it will ensure they alter their practices:
"The standards of our industry were set with the assistance of scientists, farmers, veterinarians and other third parties. Enforcement falls on Egg Farmers of Canada, provincial boards and a national network of inspectors," Clarke said in the statement. "We are investigating the available video now and will ensure necessary changes are made."