November 10, 2008 - Strike Blow for free hens, cities urged
Published in: The Surrey Leader
By: Jeff Nagel
Also published in the Richmond Review (Nov 13th) and the Peace Arch News (Nov 13th)
Area chicken farms are facing renewed pressure to stop housing egg-laying hens in densely stacked cages.
The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) is urging local cities to adopt policies banning civic-run facilities like convention centres, golf courses and rec centres from buying eggs hatched under those conditions.
So far Richmond and Pitt Meadows have adopted such resolutions and Metro Vancouver is expected to reconsider the issue in the months ahead.
The humane society hopes voters press more city councils to sign on.
"We're looking for all municipalities in the Metro Vancouver regional district to adopt a purchasing policy that prefers certified organic free-range eggs in all publicly funded food facilities," said VHS farm animal program director Leanne McConnachie.
Stacking chicken cages up to eight tiers high packs tens of thousands of birds into a single barn, where the VHS says they live in confined misery.
McConnachie says limiting each bird to an area the size of standard sheet of paper not only deprives them of room to move and behave naturally, it's also riskier to human health.
She cites a greater incidence of salmonella on eggs grown in stacked cages, rather than from free-range chickens.
"There's a lot of disease that's spread through that," she said. "Avian flu is a concern. There are ideal conditions for a pathogen to spread."
McConnachie said a civic facility ban would raise awareness and steer more farmers to produce cage-free eggs.
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves said restaurants in city-run buildings absorbed the higher cost of free-range eggs without difficulty.
"They didn't even raise the price of an egg sandwich," he said. "They said this is good for business."
Steves, a farmer himself, agreed conditions are "terrible" for caged hens.
"It may take up a little bit more land, but your egg is a whole lot more nutritious," he added.
But Chilliwack chicken farmer Rob Martens contends the campaign is misguided and threatens to trigger unintended consequences.
According to the B.C. Egg Marketing Board, 76 per cent of B.C. chickens are raised in cages.
Because free-range or free-run chickens need more room per bird, production would fall at existing chicken farms if all cages were eliminated.
"Our production in B.C. would probably be cut in half," Martens predicted.
"Cheaper eggs would probably have to come in from other provinces or other countries that are grown in cages."
Besides increasing transport costs and greenhouse gas emissions, he said B.C. consumers would no longer have local oversight of growing conditions and things like antibiotic use.
"At least here we are controlling our industry," he said.
If all Lower Mainland egg production went free-range and the goal was to keep pace with local demand, he said an extra 4,500 acres of farmland would have to be found and converted – likely now growing other crops – to chicken farming.
Nearly a quarter of chickens raised in the province are already "specialty birds" which includes free-range, free-run and organic.
That's the highest specialty proportion in North America, Martens said, as farmers have responded to local market demand.
Martens' 4,000 chickens are all free-range, but he defends other farmers who use cages.
"The birds are totally grown in healthy conditions," he said. "We have some of the lowest mortality rates with birds in cages."
Specialty eggs are often double the price of white cage-grown eggs.
"There's a cost to producing cage-free eggs versus caged eggs," Martens said.
"The consumers will decide at the grocery store."
- Free-range: Chickens range freely both inside a barn and in an area outside.
- Free-run: Chickens are uncaged and have free run of a barn, but can't go outside. Hens have access to nesting boxes, and often to perches.
- Caged: Chickens are kept in rows of cages, usually stacked vertically, often three to five birds per 16"x18" cage.