Sunday, May 22, 2011 | Categories: Michael's Essays
Excuse me. Pardon me for interrupting, but the eggs over easy you're having for breakfast probably came from laying hens jammed into a battery cage about the size of an open newspaper.
Often there are four or five chickens in a single cage. They rub themselves raw on the walls of the cage and they can't stretch their wings.
Now I realize that rattling on about chicken welfare is not the most felicitous thing to hear when you're sitting down to your Sunday morning table, but there is an ongoing and growing concern among a lot of people who put the issue right up there with global warming and clean water.
It is part of a new consciousness on the part of consumers that behind the filling of our food baskets and stomachs there is quite a bit of pain to our fellow animals.
Which is why there are organized protests, for example, against the killing of baby seals and the great whales. Many of the protests are well-funded by some very determined citizens.
All of which is encouraging but the plight of seal pups and whales is one thing---we love baby seals for their cuteness and whales for their imposing might and majesty. Chickens don't have much to offer on the empathy spectrum. We don't spend a lot of time thinking about them.
It has been estimated that 98 per cent of Canada's 26-million laying hens are kept in battery cages.
There are no nationally enforced standards about how much space the hens are allowed; the suggested space is 432 square centimetres per animal.
But there are tougher standards for instance in British Columbia. The BC SPCA enforces a space standard of 19 hundred square centimeters per bird.
Groups such as the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals are urging us to stop buying eggs from hens bred and raised in cruel conditions. It has been suggested that large supermarket chains be forced to identify on egg cartons that they come from hens kept inhumanely in battery cages.
Some years ago, egg producers began selling their product as coming from uncaged birds. These eggs were identified as either free range, where the hens have some access to the outside or free run, where they are allowed to run around in large open-concept barns.
Which finally persuaded me and tons of other people to by only eggs in cartons marked clearly as free range or free run.
But recent science has uncovered a very unpleasant, darker side to so-called free range chickens.
Uncaged chickens, according to Swedish researchers, are exposed to higher level of bacteria and viruses that put them at greater risk for disease and infection than caged birds.
The study by a Swedish veterinary institute also found that infections, especially of e-coli bacteria, were the most common cause among chickens and that the incidence rate was higher in the uncaged birds than those kept in cages.
It also found that housing large populations of uncaged birds often leads to increased incidence of pecking which in turn can cause more disease and death.
All of which is not lost on the egg producers. Their profits rely on the good will of retailers and consumers, especially those more concerned than ever about the ethical treatment of animals.
Which is why the Egg Farmers of Canada, the national organization of egg producers, announced earlier this month the financing of the first Canadian academic chair of poultry welfare. Funded to the tune of $110,000 a year for seven years.
It will be housed at the University of Guelph which has the country's largest staff of animal welfare scientists.
Egg producers in this country and in Europe know they have a large public relations problem on their hands. And financing an animal welfare department at a reputable university may be nothing more than an attempt to clean up their image.
But I don't think so. If a way can be found to sell more eggs by reducing the pain inflicted on their animals, it will enhance their profit margins.
And it will go a long way toward easing the concerns of those like me who want their eggs on the sunny side.