No more cute little red hen: Today's caged chickens growsick and die to produce our bacteria-laden eggs and meat. My local supermarket lists the price of eggs on the wall: White eggs, extra large: $2.
My local supermarket lists the price of eggs on the wall:
White eggs, extra large: $2.59
Extra large brown eggs: $2.79
Large free-run eggs: $3.69
Organic free-range eggs, large: $4.59
While eggs don't comprise a major part of my diet, I do keep a dozen eggs for the occasional poached-egg lunch and for guests.
Since I like my eggs fresh and organic, it's no struggle for me to pay twice as much for them as for the commercial variety. But if I was feeding a family, I might hesitate over the price difference.
When I venture to crack the eggs and put the commercial and free-run-organic side by side, I ponder the contrast. Those pale yolks look sickly. The shells are thin and almost crumble in my hands. The eggs from organic hens have full-orbed yellow yolks. Their shells are calcium-rich and hard. Those hard shells and golden yolks tell me a story.
It's No Yolk!
Canada stands far behind other countries in implementing healthy livestock production of all kinds. Many Canadians say they have ceased to eat red meat because of inhumane animal husbandry, yet the raising of chickens might prove even more shocking than the treatment of beef animals in the feedlots of our country.
Emotional Health in the Farmyard
The North American egg-producing industry dismisses the growing protest against "battery" cages as "consumer sentimentality." Egg advertising and packaging carefully foster a happy-chicken mythology while word technicians receive high salaries to preserve the image of plump brown hens cheerily searching and sharing in the chicken yard.
Chickens are social creatures. They love to run around. They squabble and compete. They occasionally turn on one another. They herd for comfort or for safety and then disperse. Children's books portray chickens as scatterbrained but lovable. The cock rules the roost. And the children go out to the hen house in the evening (or is it the morning?) to gather the warm brown eggs.
With the advent of intensive factory farming, that image is obsolete.
Modern Chickens are Machines
North American eggs come primarily from the lively and excitable Leghorn of Mediterranean descent. She's a designer hen, bred by genetic selection and an unnatural diet to produce an egg a day. Her commercially manufactured feed contains poultry by-products, including chicken offal (waste parts, entrails, chicken droppings and dead birds). The chickens routinely receive antibiotics to control bacteria that thrive in close confinement, thus causing the evolution of super salmonella and other toxic bacteria.
Laying Leghorns are bred to be small so that several birds can be crammed into a wire cage. Up to two-thirds of the hens' beaks are removed so they don't peck each other to death. But removing a large part of the beak makes eating a problem. Sometimes hens starve to death. The toes and claws of imprisoned hens don't develop normally and often become permanently entangled in the mesh. Typically the toes are then cut off "for their own protection!"
Hens also suffer a form of osteoporosis called "caged layer fatigue" due to lack of sunlight and fresh air. This increases demineralization of bones and muscles because of constant eggshell formation. Calcium is added to an already artificial diet, but this forms a poor substitute for the grit and gravel available in a natural farmyard habitat. Bone fractures and even paralysis are common.
Forced molting is another popular way to increase egg production. When egg-laying naturally declines, hens are deprived of food and water to shock them into a molt to start a new laying cycle. John Robbins, a well-known environmentalist and best-selling author, says that forcing hens to molt has been banned in animal-loving Great Britain since 1987, but continues in North America.
Meat or "broiler" birds come from heavier breeds. They are intensively raised with growth hormones to develop quickly from six to eight weeks in as little space as possible. Unlike laying hens, broilers are sometimes raised on the barn floor rather than in cages, but are not allowed movement that would burn up valuable calories needed for fat production.
Broilers are fed animal byproducts, including condemned, diseased parts, which are a significant source of bacterial contamination. Chicken producers simply avoid the brain and nervous tissues that might be a source of mad cow disease, which is equivalent to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. So says Michael W. Fox, veterinarian and spokesman for animal welfare around the world. Dr. Fox warns that intensive confinement systems are "epicentres for food-born diseases in the human population that benefit [only] the medical and pharmaceutical industries because of the diseases being created in the animals and subsequently humans" (Acres USA, Dec. 2002).
Twenty-first-century commercial farm practices do not produce healthy hens. Their immune systems are weakened if not destroyed. They get no exercise. The unnatural diet is necessarily fortified with antibiotics to kill toxic bacteria that thrive in the stress of imprisonment. Such bacteria are never eradicated, and Health Canada sends regular warnings to the public, putting the onus for food safety on consumers to cook eggs well to kill salmonella. Health Canada blames salmonella contamination on organic egg producers who don't feed antibiotics to their hens! But it's this same salmonella that Health Canada uses for an excuse to irradiate commercial poultry products, rather than correct bad farming practice.
Food From Happy Hens
The other side of the chicken-and-egg debate is nutrition. How much better are eggs and meat from chickens that are fed whole organic grain, greens and organic mash, no hormones or other drugs, and are allowed to run free? That research has not been profitable for either government or industry to undertake. Egg producers are more concerned with reduced consumer consumption of eggs as a result of the cholesterol scare. And the producers of commercially raised meat birds steer away from comparisons between organic verses factory-farmed chickens, claiming there are no "reliable" studies. But the truth is, the fat content in commercially raised chickens is high and their diet is just as unnatural as in the feed lots of beef animals. You either pay now for real food, or you pay later with poor health caused by poor nutrition.
For lacto-ovo vegetarians, organic eggs are an excellent source of useable protein. Eggs contain good fat as well as a high level of lecithin, which emulsifies cholesterol as well as fat and thus eliminates both from the body. Eggs from organically fed hens are also a source of most B vitamins, including B12, minerals and vitamin E. They are actually good for the heart, not bad! They contain essential choline, which is a brain-development and memory nutrient that is recommended, along with niacin, against encroaching senility. Eggs are, by all counts, far more beneficial to the diet than the true cholesterol culprit, processed food!
For the occasional meat eater, organically raised chickens and other poultry provide lean, easily digested animal protein as well as at least five times the amount of essential fatty acids as commercially raised birds. They also contain B vitamins and are less likely to be contaminated with parasites.
While dietary changes to veganism and increased consumer opposition to cage-raised birds are definitely threats to the commercial egg industry, the BC government Department of Food and Agriculture tells us on its Web site that there are "positive animal welfare benefits" for raising hens in cages (it does not say what the benefits are). And that "intensive cage production keeps costs down in order to meet the consumer demand for inexpensive food."
But do your own research. Shop for your food with discernment. After all, it's the stuff of life! Buy an organic chicken, even if it costs $2 more, and check the taste and difference. Buy a half dozen organic, free-run eggs and another six, large, white, commercial eggs. Compare. Even without a laboratory analysis from Doctor's Data, you know which eggs are freshest and most nutritious, just by looking. Put your money down! Since purchasing decisions are often made at the grocery store, the chicken and egg producers will get the message and respond accordingly, because they won't raise what they can't sell!
The ball inevitably returns to us.
Hens suffer a form of osteoporosis called ‘caged layer fatigue' due to lack of sunlight and fresh air. This increases demineralization of bones and muscles because of constant eggshell formation.
Twenty-first century commercial farm practices do not produce healthy hens. Their immune systems are weakened, if not destroyed.