This blog post is one I was hoping not to have to write. In Canada, there was recently an “investigative report” on the commercial egg industry. It developed after an animal activist group took undercover footage and passed an edited video to a television newsmagazine. The resulting 30 minute show was a black eye to the professional farmers, and has caused a stir in the public. I am disappointed in the response from the industry groups to address this attack, so I am writing this blog post in hopes of doing my part. This commentary does not represent any organization, and is entirely my own opinion.
First, let me point out some of the issues that are at play in animal activist videos in general.
1) Modern farms are large. This is daunting to most non-agricultural people. Looking at a barn with 10,000 chickens is as alien to you as me looking at an auto assembly plant, or a brewery, or a company that makes computer components. The shock of seeing the alien environment is leveraged by insinuating that it is impossible to care for large groups of hens. The fact is, there are basically as many laying hens in Canada as there are people. The farms are large because so many people live in cities and towns and don’t have time or interest in raising their own food. 30 Million chickens have to live somewhere in Canada if we want to continue to eat eggs the way we do now. Interestingly, the average flock size in Canada is smaller than anywhere else in the developed world….in the US, farms are between 50 and 100 times as large.
2) Activist videos are not what they seem. No, I’m not saying they fake them (although that has happened in some cases). What you need to realize is that the activist takes video for 4-5 months, then edits the video into the worst possible 15 minutes possible. The mandate of animal activists is to stop the use of animals…..all animals. They aren’t interested in showing the truth….if false representation helps them stop a process they see as immoral, that is very acceptable to them. Think about what this means. Imagine someone secretly taping you interacting with your kids or coworkers for months, and then trying to make you look bad. Imagine going through 4 months of footage of baseball games, and clipping out batters getting hit, hard slides, collisions at the plate, then make a 15 minute video of how baseball should be stopped because it is too violent. If the people watching were from the interior of China where people are unfamiliar with baseball, what would their opinion of the sport be?
3) Farmers (and unfortunately, farmer organizations) are petrified to make mistakes in public. If you say something incorrectly and it is misinterpreted at a party, somebody might think you are an ass. Make a clumsy remark to a “gotcha” reporter, and you make an entire farming community look bad. Nobody wants to be the face on TV that makes everyone look bad (it’s interesting that the activists almost never show his/her face on the videos either). Unfortunately, the implication is that the farmers have something to hide, further shaking public confidence (oddly, it is seen as protecting the activist’s identity).
4) The “alternative” methods are always shown as a Walt Disney film. We need to house 30 million hens in Canada. If everyone doesn’t want to house 2 hens on their apartment balcony, we need people to make a living by producing eggs for the city folk to eat. To farm, you need to have enough income to pay your bills and feed yourself. The 5 hens that were shown running around the feet of the cow, on a sunny summer day will a) feed the farmer and maybe 2 other people (we will need 29, 999, 995 more farmers to do this), b) have a much less pleasant time when it is raining or snowing out, and c) have to earn the farmer $10,000 each in order for the bank not to repossess the farm. If you want to promote free-run or free-range, at least understand what a 5,000 bird flock of hens kept in that system looks like (5000 is about the minimum size of flock where a farmer can make a living).
5) It is assumed that the only reason farmers keep hens in cages is to increase profits and sate their greed. In reality, especially in Canada, there is much more profit to be made farming cage free or organic hens (see my blog post www.mikethechickenvet.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/the-economics-of-egg-farming-101/). There are several reasons why hens are in cages. Cages are the housing system that result in the healthiest hens, the safest eggs, and the least environmental impact. They are the most efficient method of producing eggs, and thus result in the most inexpensive eggs for the consumer. The industry consists of over 95% of the eggs being produced in cages because that is what the consumer has demanded. If people stop preferring cheap eggs, the farmers will respond.
With these ideas in mind, there are things that happened on the activist video that needed to be improved upon. The farm had an unacceptable method of euthanasia. Their training of employees was weak in this area, and the problem was one of ignorance, rather than callousness or laziness. The method of euthanasia was actually more difficult and labour intensive than the approved, proper and effective methods. In this instance, I thank the activists for finding the problem so that it could be fixed. In 15 years as a laying hen vet, I have never seen another farm that euthanized pullets incorrectly….cervical dislocation is a very effective, humane and simple method of euthanasia that is used EVERYWHERE…..I honestly don’t know where the idea came from on this farm.
The unfortunate side effect of having large flocks (at 120,000 hens, this is one of the largest flocks in Canada) is that there is bound to be injured or escaped chicks. This is what the farmer works to prevent and address on a daily basis. I don’t work directly with this farm, but every farm I work with will inspect each of the cages at least daily, and the vast majority will inspect the barn 2-3 times per day, to remove injured or dead chickens, and make sure no birds are trapped or injured. Despite the appearance of the video (again 4-5 months worth of injuries shown in less than a minute), these things don’t happen often, and happen LESS in cages than in other housing systems. The activist stated that she saw ‘a thousand chicks die’. I don’t doubt it. Sounds dramatic. But think about 1000 chicks out of 120,000 chicks. If you have 5 hens in your backyard, that would be the same rate as 1 BIRD DYING EVERY 22 YEARS.
Is this farm perfect? Absolutely not. They need to change some of their practices. In general, they do a good job. The TV show condemns cages as a method of housing laying hens, but makes no mention of the changes that are being undertaken by the industry to implement furnished cages, which have been shown to be a VERY humane and effective way to house hens, maintaining the health and safety benefits of cages, while allowing much better behaviour capabilities and freedom of movement. Are cages acceptable? As someone who just finished my Masters Degree in Animal Welfare, I am very supportive of furnished cages, as are the ethologists I have worked with over the past 15 years. Only you can make that decision for yourself, however. What I can tell you, is that if you ask for the industry to change, it will. The housing situation right now is in place because that is what the consumer and society has demanded.
If you have any questions or comments, I will be interested in hearing them, and will respond as well as I can.
Mike the Chicken Vet