Category Archives: Information on Eggs

Is Animal Welfare a Real Priority for Consumers?

I have been involved firsthand in many of the changes that are being required of agriculture to respond to animal welfare demands by consumers.  I have noticed a few things that I think are very interesting, and, frankly, movie-worthy.

Consumer pressure has pushed for the removal of gestation stalls for sows and caged housing for laying hens, pressure against fast growing broiler chickens, and removal of antibiotics, hormones and growth promotants in all animals.  We can debate the end result of many of these requests, and whether they actually result in improved animal welfare, or whether the gain is worth the loss in other areas such as environmental impact, human health or economics.  That is interesting, but the question I keep running up against is whether the public ACTUALLY WANTS the things they are “asking” for.

Huh?  I know you are asking yourself if I’ve bumped my head or drank too much (questions I’ve had to face far too often in my career), but bear with me.  I am going to use caged chickens as an example to show you what I mean (the blog is not Mikethepigvet, after all).

Don’t get me wrong….I understand that animal welfare is a big concern for some people, and those people have been making choices of what to buy based on their values for years.  And I believe that almost everyone has a desire, all things being equal, that animals be treated well.  BUT, remember that improving animal welfare makes eggs more expensive…cage free eggs will always be more expensive than caged eggs, and organic eggs will always be more expensive than both.  Does the general public want welfare improvements enough to pay for them?

Think back a couple years….on TV is a lovable guy who works for A&W, and he is telling you that you can get a burger that is free of hormones, antibiotics and guilt (I might be paraphrasing).  This ad campaign was hugely successful, and A&W became a  much bigger


Yeah, this guy….how could you NOT believe him?

player in the fast-food arena, despite not bringing back the drive in.  A&W had identified a concern held by some of the consumers, and addressed it.  They were seen as good, responsive corporate citizens, and gained trust and goodwill.

Other restaurants had to respond…they were losing business.  Enter McDonalds.  They had been struggling with their image as the prototypical fast-food outlet and blamed for singlehandedly causing the obesity trend in the world.  In response, they rolled out all day breakfast and pledged to source eggs from only cage-free hens.  They had a very solid response and uptick in business and image.

In Ronald’s eyes, the public really WANTED cage free eggs….the switch was in response to public values.  People responded to McDonald’s doing something that made them seem like “good guys”…, Egg McMuffins are delicious.

Other restaurants saw a behemoth like McDs moving to cage-free and followed suit, because the public wanted it.

Around the same time, surveys were done by activist groups that showed that 90+% of people felt it was important to treat animals kindly and that confinement was not kind.

So….come to my part of the world.  Over the past few years, more chickens have been housed in aviaries and other cage-free houses in Ontario….to meet the commitments made by the big retailers.  Everyone built a little bigger than they needed to, because – hey, the public wants cage-free eggs, and the market would do nothing but expand, and eggs that didn’t go to the food retailers would sell like hotcakes (also delicious) in the grocery store.

Why, then, are there thousands of dozens of eggs being produced in aviaries and floor barns in Ontario being sold as regular eggs….without earning the premium price that is necessary to pay for the more expensive method of production?  There are cage-free eggs front and center in every egg display in every grocery store in the province…..I have trouble finding the regular eggs that I buy (they are at knee level, near the back of the cooler).  I thought the public WANTED cage-free eggs.

Why, then, has the demand for specialty eggs not increased noticeably?  It continues to creep slowly upwards, but the number of organic, free-run, and cage-free eggs bought in the store is essentially the same, and well less than 10% of eggs sold.  (I don’t count omega-3 eggs in this, because they are produced by changing the birds diet, and are laid predominantly by chickens in cages).

Consider this…..are consumers responding to the willingness of the restaurants to show that they are responsive and “good guys”, more than an alignment with specific animal welfare priorities.  Consumers “accept” the changes in the restaurants, but don’t “choose” those same eggs in the store.

The implications for farmers are huge….they are going to change their way of housing birds, but if they invest millions into non-cage systems, but the public doesn’t want to buy them they will literally go broke.  If they invest millions in the new furnished cage systems, and the public DOES demand cage-free in the store, they will go broke.  Makes me glad I’m not making the decision right now, but it does make me worry for the friends I have in the industry.


Mike the Chicken Vet





















Activists, Politics and Farming…Everyone Loses


Example of a Furnished Cage

The battle over animal welfare is coming to a head in the US.  California’s Proposition 2 comes into effect in January 2015, which is almost immediately, in terms of the farms affected.  The story is complicated, the issues are multi-layered, and as far as I can tell, NOBODY is going to win.


A Modern Conventional Cage Barn

Turn the clock back to the halcyon days of 2008.  An animal rights group called the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) champions a ballot initiative in one of the most liberal states in America.  HSUS is an organization that is dedicated to the reduction and elimination of animal use in the world.  They had a budget of $125,763,492 in 2012, but used less than 1% of their funds for shelters.  They claim to want to improve the lives of laying hens and other farmed animals in California….cynics say they are trying to destroy the egg and pork industries.

Proposition 2 stated that “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.”  It passed with 63% of the vote.  Californians, although reportedly being confused about the implications of the statement, clearly want improved welfare for farmed animals. They also eat almost 9 Billion eggs per year.   After much legal wrangling, it has been decided that furnished cages (cages with a nest box, perches, scratch areas and more space) are an acceptable method of farming hens, as are free-range, free-run and aviaries…..all of which are noticeably more expensive than eggs from hens housed in cages.  Proposition 2 has an implementation date of Jan 1, 2015.

Farmers want to look after animals, produce food and make a living.  Several farmers decided to adopt new technologies and improve the welfare of hens.  Notably JS West Co. has converted several barns to furnished cages at an incredible cost.  They tried to recoup their investment by selling the eggs for a small premium.  Unfortunately, nobody would buy the eggs, and JS West has been forced to sell the eggs as traditional white eggs, at a loss.

Enter the Governator.  Arnold knew that, if the eggs produced in California had to be more expensive, they could not compete with cheaper eggs from Iowa, which has almost 52 million laying hens, well over 90% of which live in cages.  He proposed a law that would require that any egg sold in California would have to be produced by hens held to the new standards required by Prop 2.  Unfortunately, this law seems to be unconstitutional, since agricultural standard in one state cannot be dictated by another state’s rules.  The Governor-General of Missouri is suing California to allow access to California’s egg market, and it looks like he will likely prevail.

So…..where does that leave them?

At the end of the day, rules are rules, and California farmers will have to follow the housing regulations.  California will have to allow free trade of eggs from other states.  The end results will be millions or billions of dollars spent in court (depends who you ask), eggs produced in California will be more expensive to produce, and unless something drastic happens, all but 5-6% of Californians will buy the cheapest eggs in the store.

HSUS will not achieve either of their purported goals….egg consumption will not drop due to higher prices (which is supposed by critics to have been their actual end-game), and the same proportion of California egg consumption will be from caged hens (meaning no improvement of welfare, which is their official goal).

Californians will not get improved animal welfare, since they will continue to buy eggs as they always have….more than 90% of the eggs from hens in cages.

Farmers in California will basically go out of business.  If you are producing a commodity that is purchased on price, and your production costs are higher, you must make less profit.  Eventually, they will go elsewhere.

Hens will not have an improved life.  Actually…just from the fact that they will live in Ohio instead of California, it is arguable that their quality of life will go down……not many people take holidays in Ohio….

This is a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and nothing getting accomplished.  Except this is more like an octopus, and all the balls dropped are Faberge eggs worth millions.

Here in Canada, we are trying to use a collaborative process to develop a strategy for welfare improvement through the National Farm Animal Care Council.  We have farmers, vets, industry, welfare scientists, humane societies, retail councils and all other players in  egg supply sitting around the table hammering out a policy.  It is excruciatingly slow, but I think it is going to result in some improvement in welfare in Canadian egg production….rather than just a redistribution of the geography of egg production.

Mike the Chicken Vet

What Eggs are Safest?

I work in the professional egg world.  I know by name the vast majority of people who supervise the production, transport, grading, marketing and delivery of the eggs you find in your grocery stores, restaurants, farmers markets (yes, legally, those eggs need to be professionally graded too), and industrial users of eggs (think bread, cake, cookie, cereal, etc. makers).  I know how much care, concern, time, money and worry is dedicated to preserving the safety of eggs.  Being a vet, I am very involved in advising on many aspects of egg safety, right from chicken health to giving opinions on egg handling, and even national programs for salmonella control.

We, in the world of Canadian large-scale egg production, are quite proud of our safety record, and the programs we have in place.  We often debate whether small producers (read backyarders and hobby farmers) can produce a product that is comparable in safety.  We snicker a little at activists that say we need to get away from large-scale farming, since you can produce healthier eggs in your backyard, or on your apartment house roof.  How on earth can removing the expertise and care that we provide result in a healthier product?  By concentrating the number of birds on a farm, you allow a person to focus strictly on the care and protection of the hens….learn about them and become truly an expert.  I admit to having this opinion much of the time.

Many, many people disagree though.  “Factory farms”, “industrial production”, “bacterial breeding grounds” have been used to describe professional farms….unfairly, I think, but the terms are sincerely used by many people.  The problem is that there are many confounding factors.  Depending on what you WANT to read in a paper, almost any study can say anything.  Professional, caged farms are much bigger than extensive farms, and exponentially bigger than recreational farms.  If there is 1 contaminated egg per 1000 in a cage barn, the farm will produce many contaminated eggs per day.  A backyard flock with a rate of 1 contaminated egg per hundred would only have 1 contaminated egg per month.  If you eat 2 eggs per day, however, which is safer? 

The fact remains (check any activist website for examples) that many studies show that large farms have higher bacterial contamination.   Conversely (check any egg farming website for examples) many studies show that professional farms are much safer, contamination wise.  So, what’s right?

There is a very recent scientific paper from Spain that describes bacterial contamination that I think is quite balanced.  It must be taken with a grain of salt, however, since in North America, all graded eggs are washed, whereas in the EU, this is not the case.  Also, the rules on antibiotic use is different.   That being said, the study found that there was more significantly more bacterial contamination in free-range, organic and backyard (called “domestic eggs”) production than in free run (birds free inside of a barn), while cage barns had the least contamination.

Having said that, the authors went on to evaluate the antibiotic resistance in the different systems.  Free run barns were worst, then cage barns, then free range (outside), organic and backyard flocks had the least antibiotic resistance.  Both these findings make sense to me.  Large scale farms have a higher tendency to use antibiotics (thus the resistance), whereas backyard flocks almost never medicate (sometimes that is itself a problem). 

Which is more important?  I don’t know.  Antibiotic resistance doesn’t necessarily mean that the bacteria is likely to make you sick…it just means that if you treat an infection, you are more likely to clear it.  Some resistant bacteria don’t make you sick at all….some susceptible bacteria make you deathly ill, very quickly.  On the other hand, if you DO get sick from a resistant bacteria, it can be a serious problem. 

Bottom line, eggs from backyard flocks are more likely to be contaminated by bacteria than anything you would buy in a grocery store.  Be careful with them….wash your hands; keep the eggs in the fridge, separate from other foods; rinse eggs in running water to remove contamination before packing them in the fridge……and then relax.  Contamination rates are very low, and most bacteria are not pathogenic.  Take reasonable precautions and then just enjoy the fruits of your labours.  You are as likely to give yourself an ulcer from stressing about the bacteria as you are of getting food poisoning.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Eggless Chicken Born?!?!

Saw this story forwarded from the Daily Mirror in Sri Lanka…it is amazing!!

The Miracle Chick

In a zoological anomaly, a hen in Sri Lanka has given birth to a chick without an egg.

Instead of passing out of the hen’s body and being incubated outside, the egg was incubated in the hen for 21 days and then hatched inside the hen. The chick is fully formed and healthy, although the mother has died.

PR Yapa, the chief veterinary officer of Welimada, where it took place, said he had never seen anything like it before. When examining the hen’s carcass he found that the fertilised egg had developed within the hen’s reproductive system, but stayed inside the hen’s body until it hatched.

A post-mortem of the hen concluded that it died of internal wounds.

I have seen a lot of funky looking eggs, but have never even heard of a chick being born outside of an egg.  Eggs come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours naturally. 

Quite a range of normal colours and sizes.

Once you work in the abnormal eggs, the range is extensive.   I was in a barn today where many of the brown eggs had “targets” on them….perfectly round white rings around a dark circle on the side of the egg.  I didn’t have a camera with me though….figures.

I’ve seen double-yolked eggs, triple-yolked eggs, shell-less eggs, round eggs, double-shelled eggs, and yolk-less eggs. 

Hen Reproductive tract

The double- and triple-yolked eggs are simply the avian version of twins and triplets, and are not that remarkable.  Double shelled eggs are odd (and rare), since the egg has to form in the shell gland, then be moved back up the reproductive tract to the magnum, where new membranes are added, then new shell is deposited as the egg re-descends through the shell gland.

These abnormal eggs are interesting, but should cause no concern to a flock owner.  There are eggs that are

Soft shelled, wrinkled and shiny eggs

symptoms of problems, and recognizing them will help you diagnose problems with your flock early enough to treat them effectively.  Soft shelled eggs and slab-sided eggs are symptoms of calcium deficiency in a hen.  Pimpled eggs can also be a sign of low calcium, if the shell is thin (pimpled eggs can be of 2

Slab Sided egg

types…1) the shell is normal thickness, with extra calcium causing raised nodules on the surface, or 2) thin shells with small areas of normal-thickness shells, that then seem to be raised areas).

 Slab sided eggs occur when an egg is held inside the bird for a day, and the next day’s egg comes down the tract, and lies against the formed egg that is in the way.  The new egg is a soft-shelled egg and deformable….it sits against the old egg as the shell is deposited on it….thus the flat side on the egg, and the round area of wrinkles around the flat side.  If you see these types of eggs in your nests, you should immediately assess the amount of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D that is available to the hens, since hypocalcemia can result in weakness, sickness and death in a hen.

Another egg that should alert you to possible problems is a wrinkled egg.  It is usually a sign of an infection of some type.  Viral infections such as infectious bronchitis, egg drop syndrome and avian influenza can cause these types of eggs, but so can other illnesses that cause the hen to be fevered and dehydrated.  Imagine a yolk that gets covered by membranes in the magnum, but does not get its share of protein and water added to it while travelling through the

I've seen this only twice, but it does happen.

infundibulum….a partly full bag of water will result.  Once the calcium is added, the egg will stay wrinkled until it is laid.  A wrinkled egg is almost always a sign of illness.  Check that your hen is not wounded (wound infections can cause wrinkled eggs too), or showing any signs of illness.  Look carefully, because hens are often very stoic. 

It is, of course, important to know what is normal for your breed and type of hen.  Some hens lay dark eggs consistently, and light eggs may be a sign of problems….however some hens lay light brown eggs all the time.  A change is usually worth looking into….often subtle changes in egg color or texture can be the earliest sign you will get that your hens are missing something in their diet, or are facing a health problem.

If you find this egg in your coop....look for an escaped emu in the area!

 Mike the Chicken Vet

Be Careful what you Wish For….EU Egg Crisis

I am “up” on the animal welfare issues facing laying hen farmers across the world.  Different jurisdictions are dealing with hen housing in different ways, trying to find a balance between production efficiencies, animal welfare, consumer demands, environmental impact, food safety, and many other concerns.  The European Union has been touted as the leader in this regard, leading the way in banning conventional cages as of January 1/ 2012.  Animal rights organizations have long been using this as the “gold standard” when they criticized other areas for not moving fast enough on this issue.

Unfortunately for the EU, their policy has had some holes in it.  Recent newspaper articles have shown that there is an egg supply crisis in the EU…

“Britain’s supermarket shelves could be empty of key products within a month as an acute shortage of eggs threatens to have serious consequences for the country’s food chain. New EU rules banning the housing of hens in conventional cages are being blamed for what some in the industry are already labelling a “crisis”, as competition among food manufacturers to source eggs sends prices rocketing. The price of eggs on the EU wholesale market has nearly quadrupled over the past week to more than four euros a kilo.” The Guardian, Mar 4/2012


“France is now suffering a shortfall of 21 million eggs a week or 10 per cent of overall production, the National Union of Egg Industries and Professionals said in a statement. As a result, egg prices shot up 75 per cent between October last year and February”  Ottawa Citizen, Mar 2/ 2012

The mistake that the EU made was that they tried to be too much to too many people, and they did not enforce a “phase-in” period.  (As an aside, I would like to point out that I have the benefit of hindsight and the ability to analyze what other jurisdictions have done since the EU directive was enacted in 1999….I am NOT criticizing the program, or the people who developed it.  They were WAY ahead of the curve, and did an excellent job.  They weren’t perfect however, and this situation can serve as a cautionary tale for other jurisdictions, like Canada, that are still deciding how to deal with the issue.)

The EU (under pressure from animal rights groups), decided that conventional cages were unacceptable, and legislated them out of existence.  They gave a 12 year “accommodation period” for the industry to adapt to the legislation, but didn’t demand a gradual uptake of alternative housing.  What happened is that farmers put off the huge investment for as long as they could (remember the unlucky coincidence of the world-wide recession in this period).  The legislation also discouraged farmers from investing in furnished cages (again, because any cage system was discouraged by animal rights groups), by categorizing them as “cage” eggs, and not paying a premium for them.  This resulted in many farms hesitating to moving to free-run or aviary systems, since they are less efficient and much different to manage.

There are two situations that have resulted….some countries have aggressively adopted the new requirements, and have been importing the eggs that they have not been able to produce locally, since the new systems are somewhat less efficient.  Now, however:

“Under the new rules, manufacturers are not now permitted to source their eggs from non-compliant EU countries, 13 of which have yet to introduce the new pens.” The Guardian, Mar 4/2012.  Because of this, even compliant countries are short of eggs, especially for commercial markets, such as for bakeries and food production facilities that use liquid or powdered eggs as ingredients.

“Cake and brioche manufacturers [in France] may soon be forced to shut down production and temporarily lay off workers if shortages continue.” Ottawa Citizen, Mar 2/2012.  I’m not 100% sure what brioche is, but it sounds yummy, and if it not produced anymore, I expect the world will suffer.

Countries in the EU are still unhappy with the directive….Irish sources state:


“Unfortunately, the cost of complying with the directive and the way in which it was implemented forced an estimated 10% to 15% of our producers out of business. This has resulted in a tightening of egg supplies and a rise in the price of eggs. ” Belfast Telegraph, Mar 10/2012.

They say a fool never learns, a smart man learns from his mistakes, and a wise man learns from other men’s mistakes.  If this is true, what can be learned from the EU example? 

First, putting together these types of sweeping rules is VERY complicated, the pitfalls are deep and plentiful, and the repercussions are HUGE.  So, as frustrating as it is to say, it is necessary to approach this issue slowly and carefully.  I have been really frustrated in the pace of change in the industry, but moving forward slowly and correctly is much more effective than moving quickly.  Jurisdictions such as the United States have proposed plans that give a phase in period, but have required benchmarks that require a certain amount of the industry to be compliant an interim times.  Other jurisdictions, such as Manitoba, have started to pay an incentive for hens housed in furnished cages, as well as loose-housed systems. 

I think that improving welfare is important, and it is the right thing to do.  All the farmers I work with agree, and want to do the right thing for their birds.  The unfortunate thing is that the question is so complicated that it is impossible to know for sure what the right answer is.  And the repercussions of moving the wrong way is losing your life’s work.  We can do it, and we can do it right.  I would like to thank the EU for paving the way with a really good first draft of a welfare program.  I can’t wait to be part of the committee that improves on the system of implementation that they developed.

Mike the Chicken Vet


Whats in an Egg?

It’s something you don’t think about all that often.  You go to the fridge, grab what you need, crack ’em and try not to get any shell into the slimy, sticky goop that comes out. 

The parts of an egg. The Chalazae are twisted because the egg rotates inside the shell membranes as it progresses past the infundibulum....natures version of "cats cradle"

Most people never really consider what is in the bowl or pan beyond that.  That’s sad….because the egg is really an amazing piece of engineering.  It only takes 22 hours to produce, it is impressive nutritionally, it is a source of both vaccines and medicine, AND it comes with a handy carrying case!

With today’s highly efficient strains of laying hens, an egg per day is not far from the truth.  This means that each day, the hen takes the most dominant follicle, wraps it in pure, digestible protein, water and membranes, then protects it inside a shell, and delivers it into the world.

The hens reproductive tract, with the parts labelled. The ovary makes ova (yolks), which then are covered during the 22 hourr trip down the reproductive tract

The ovary makes ova (yolks), which then are covered during the 22 hour trip down the reproductive tractThe infundibulum actually “plucks” the yolk off the ovary, and holds it for about 15 minutes. It’s here that fertilization will occur, if it is going to.  Then the 13 inch long magnum adds the thick albumin over about 3 hours.  In the isthmus, membranes are added which act as the scaffolding for the shell to grow from.  This takes about 75 minutes.Water is also added to the egg once the membranes are in place, in order to “plump” out the egg, and make it, well….egg shaped.  Then the egg sits in the shell gland for about 18 hours before being laid very quickly…usually just after daybreak. The addition of water is important, or you can end up with wrinkled eggs….the shell just covers the membranes, which are thin and pliable….without being plumped out, you get this :

I use this as a sign of stress in a laying flock.

You can get this type of thing from some diseases that injure the uterus, or if there is something that makes the egg leave the isthmus area too quickly.  During this relatively short period, an amazing package has been developed.  As someone who a) has kids and b) is in training, and wants to lose some weight as well as build muscle, I am acutely aware of the low calories and high protein available in the egg.  Eggs are still considered the yardstick against which other proteins are measured against, with beef getting a rating of .93, and whey protein has .25 of the quality of protein in an egg.  I also find it easier to get a scrambled egg into the kids than almost any other “healthy” food…(there is some debate in the house as to whether macaroni and cheese ranks as “healthy” food or not….).  For the low cost of 70 calories, eggs contain 6g of protein and 5g of fat.  They have an alphabet soup of vitamins, and iron, selenium and choline.

See....Lots of good stuff, and only 70 calories

See….Lots of good stuff, and only 70 caloriesThis is the breakdown of a “normal” egg.  If you feed chickens special things, such as lutein, Omega 3 fats, extra vitamins and potentially other things, you can harvest them from eggs, which make them the leading edge of the science of neutraceutical development.  Preventing macular degeneration, improving brain development and providing extra nutrition to people who don’t consume much food (think ill people, or the elderly) are all functions of eggs right now…the future has lots of potential.The other thing that is a nice characteristic of eggs is the versatility they have for preparation.  Hard boiled, over easy, quiches, scrambled, poached….all are quite different from each other, and eggs pick up the flavour of whatever you cook ’em in.  All in all, not a bad piece of food technology.  There are times, however, when you feel an urge to be a “purist”, and get back to nature….there is only one way to appreciate ALL the characteristics of eggs….not for the squeamish, however… 

Hard-Core Egg Consumption.....not sure what the health department would say...

Mike the Chicken Vet

It’s Food Freedom Day in Canada

Whew!  Just in time….I, like you, have just made enough money to pay for all the food I will eat this year….assuming you are as average as I am.   I’m not 100% sure how it works for the kids….they don’t have jobs, and they still eat quite a bit, so….they may have to go on a diet.  But, bottom line, we pay less than 10% of our GDP on food each year.  According to the government, each household spent $7440 on food in 2008, which was 1.8% higher than 2007.  (Somehow, the government knows EXACTLY how much I owe them the day after my income tax is due, but can’t tell me how much we spent on food any more recent than 2008….) 

In the 1960’s, the amount we spent on food was around 18.7% of our income.  I find it amazing that we spend so little for food in a country that, lets face it, is relatively inhospitable to life in general for 7 months of the year.  Much of our food cost has extra charges for transportation, energy and housing….whether its greenhouses, or barns with heaters.  Imagine being an egg farmer in the tropics….put up a roof, and some netting, and your barn is built….here we have walls, insulation, heaters, big fans, and computerized controls so that our birds don’t freeze in the winter or cook in the summer.

Anyway…I was looking at the numbers for food freedom day, and noticed a few other official numbers that were pretty interesting.  These numbers are from 2009, but are not too far off what is going on today.  The average person eats 16.1 dozen eggs per year (193 eggs), which is down from a high of 23 dozen (276 eggs) in 1960.  Of these 193 eggs, 70% are sold in the shell, and 30% are consumed as processed eggs.  Processed eggs are sold at retail, to hotels, restaurants and institutions, are sold to further processors for the manufacturing of many foods (bakery products, mayonnaise, noodles, etc.) and speciality items such as shampoo, pet foods and adhesives.  Consider Chinese consume 349 eggs per person, Mexicans consume 345 eggs per person, and the Japanese consume 323 eggs per person per year.

Canadians have a vast amount of choice when it comes to eggs.  Eggs farms in Canada produce white, brown, Omega-3, free-run, free-range, vitamin enriched, lutein enriched, and organic eggs.  They come in pee wee, small, medium, large, jumbo and double-yolk sizes.  There are a few farms now that are testing out aviary and furnished cage systems.  It is amazing to live in a country where we can afford to have this much choice!

So….now that I have enough money to buy all my food for the year, I have 3 days to save up for valentines day… I don’t have to spend extra money on a comfy couch.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Chicken Farming Across the World

My trip to Atlanta was, as always, an eye-opening trip.  One of the things that stuck with me, as I wondered the aisles, was the number of international exhibitors.  I got freebies for my kids that I can’t read.  (International exhibitors give away the BEST stuff….I got an oriental labelled magnetic chess set from one of them!….I’m not even sure what country the company was from.)  There were entire aisles where spanish and chinese were the main languages spoken.  It made me think of egg farming elsewhere in the world.  I talked to an Egyptian farmer, who had to make his own fans, because of some embargo that didn’t allow him to import equipment that he thought was decent quality.  Then a farmer from India who was concerned about air conditioning his chick barn so that they didn’t die from heat prostration (they like temperatures of 94F…..and he had to COOL them to that temperature!!).

Then, at one of the lectures I attended, there was a “Future of Chicken Farming” video shown from the United States that was made in 1946.  The description of the challenges and goals of the farmers of the time were amazing….there was no such thing as a broiler-type chicken then….people cooked up and ate laying hens when they were done laying.  The goal of the time was to try to develop a bird with a reasonable amount of meat on it….how things have changed.

Anyway, I started looking around for examples of different egg farming practices from around the world.  Many of the modern egg farmers across the world mostly deal in similar technology….the world is shrinking.  But the traditional and smaller farms vary considerably.  As do the attitudes towards egg handling and food safety.  I honestly don’t know if any of these pictures are representative of egg farming in any of the places or times represented.  I found them interesting, and eye opening.  You may find some things that you could apply to your backyard, or possibly gain an appreciation of the opportunities that we have that other areas do not share.

Employee of a 1940s egg farm, washing eggs for sale in the local store. My 5 year old would start a new product..."pre-scrambled eggs".


Proud farmers, displaying their best 1910.


Feeding Chickens in the 1950s.


Govornment Farm in Victoria, BC. Not sure of the year. Govornment efficiency....the great constant across the years.


An Egg Farm in Honduras


An egg farm currently for sale in the Phillipines....from the realtor ad.


Some hens in Australia


Interesting way to deliver birds to market in Phillipines.


A farmer in just never see saris in barns in Canada


Mozambique egg farm


I LOVE these egg cartons in China....don't believe they are widely used, but they should be!


Back in the 1950s, advertisements were simipler....and more accurate!


Egg market in Korea....not a fridge in sight.


Farm in Japan....much more intensive than here....


Chinese Egg Farm....again, very large scale

Mike the Chicken Vet.

The Future of Egg Farming?

I spent this afternoon working with a group of researchers at the university laying hen barn, teaching some students about how normal chickens act and look.  The point was how to examine the hens to look for health issues that might impact their welfare and to compare the impacts of different housing systems.  This in itself is not that far removed from what I do…..what made today cool for me was that I got to see chickens in a new type of cage.  A new technology that helps provide more complete behaviour opportunities than regular cages, but still offers all the welfare benefits that cages provide.

The new type of "furnished" sofas or TVs, just the chicken-centric stuff

I am excited to be involved with projects like this, and others that are pushing the envelope with respect to laying hen farming.   The new technology…furnished cages….has huge potential to improve welfare and still keep eggs safe and affordable for consumers.  The issues are complicated and involved, but I would (and have…often) argue that furnished cages can provide the best possible welfare currently available for laying hens.  And there are some truly smart, educated people who agree with me.  In fact, these cages have been evaluated by the most accomplished animal welfare experts, and have been approved and endorsed by all of the ones I have met or talked to….and I’ve met and talked with a great many of them.  

Furnished cages in action in Europe

There is some question as to whether these fancy cages will be able to do what they are purported to do….given Ontario’s climate, feed types, labour availability, etc.  That’s what the research project today was about….the university is evaluating the feasibility of these cages.  You see…new technology is the same, no matter what field it is in.   Electric cars…..enviromentally friendly homes….today, there are almost no people who would argue that they are not progressive, valuable, and a trend of the future.  They are also as rare as hens teeth (pun intended).  Why?  Because they are expensive and unproven.  Look at big screen TV’s…..5 years ago, they were cutting edge, and only the wealthy and risk tolerant types would buy them.

Birds-eye view...perches, dustbaths and nest areas are the Mariott of hen housing!

That was for a TV….maybe a $5000 investment.  These furnished cages will cost the average farmer around $250,000 MORE than regular cages, when he is refurnishing his barn.  You can imagine that these guys wanting to know that this new scheme for looking after hens is all it’s cracked up to be (I got this pun thing NAILED!).   If the research works out, I know that the farmers in Ontario will jump towards the new technology if it means better care for their hens.   I’ve discussed the technology and the costs with several interested farmers…..if we can show that the hens get the welfare benefits that have been described for the furnished cages, they will absorb the extra investment. 

Soooo….the egg-heads at the university will try to validate the claims made by the equipment salesmen, and progress will be made that will actually improve the welfare of laying hens.  It is really cool that I have positioned myself to have a front row seat to see it happen.  I will be one of those old curmudgeons saying “I remember when……”

Mike the Chicken Vet

Why I like supply management

I know its been a little while since I posted a “real” post.  I’ve been busily changing the appearance and some of the functionality of the blog….hope it makes the info more accessible to anyone who is interested. 

Over the past few days/weeks, there has been a LOT of attention paid to the supply management system.  It’s in the news a lot….people discussing whether our government should work to defend this “cartel” when making new Pan-Pacific trade agreements.   Opponents cry that the “protectionist” system is causing all of us to pay too much for eggs, milk, chicken, grains and turkey.  Plus, it may jeopardize trade agreements that will be important for all sorts of sectors. 

They might be right.  Hell….I don’t know.  I am neither politician, economist or negotiator (my wife can vouch for ALL 3 of these….and she does….often).  Do the marketing boards and tariffs make domestic food more expensive than they need to be?  It seems like they must.  They control supply, and thus decrease competition, reduce imports, and lower price efficiencies. 

The amount of increase is the question that I can’t get my head around.  One thing I do know is that food freedom day this year was Feb 12.  Food freedom day is the day that the average Canadian has earned enough to buy all the food we need for the year.  That’s 43 days, or 10% of our income.  That put us 5th in the world for paying the least per capita for food in 2010, according to National Geographic and Euromonitor.   We pay less for food than Australians, Japanese, Finns, Mexicans, Chinese, the French, the list goes on.  Sure….a big part of that is because we make a lot of money in Canada, but we also have relatively cheap food.  When our dietary staples (milk, cheese, eggs and bread) are all supply managed, I can never see how the system is hurting the public very much.

Let me tell you a little about what I do know about.  In Ontario, the average egg farm has  24, 0oo hens.  In the US, average egg production company size is measured in the millions of hens.  A flock size of 24,ooo hens is considered a hobby farm, and producers laugh at our puny operations….literally….  In Ontario, family farms still make up the vast majority of production.  By this, I mean that when I show up on a farm, either the farm owner, his wife, his kids or all of the above will be in the barn.  When I worked in the US (admittedly only for 6 months), I NEVER met a farm owner in a barn.  I met managers in barns, and I met owners in offices. 

The system we have in Ontario has a much better food safety record than our bigger brothers down south.  The animal welfare on our farms is also noticeably better.  There are good farms in the states too, but when the income per hen is so much lower, investing in new equipment, extra labour, or better systems is economic suicide.  When the egg farmers make a good living, they can (and do) afford to provide their hens with the best systems available.  I have NO qualms about stating  we look after our hens better than they do in the US.  We can afford to.  Because of supply management.   That’s why I like it.  Supply management results in better care for the hens.  Full Stop.

Is it worth it?  I don’t know.  I have no idea of the implications across other sectors.  My personal prediction is that if supply management is dismantled, and the US is allowed to ship eggs into Canada, there will be one, two, or at most three, egg farms in Ontario.  They will consist of millions of hens, each barely making any profit, and getting re-investment at the same rate.  Will eggs be cheaper….yep, but not a lot.

Mike the Chicken Vet