Will Victoria find an egg that's truly cruelty-free?
When I read Glenn Gaetz's guest blog post, Understanding ‘Cruelty-Free’ Eggs, my heart sank. As I read paragraph to paragraph, I kept thinking, "He's going to tell us what to do at the end, right? There's a happy egg out there, right!?" But Glenn offered no such hope—and I just couldn't accept the thought that there were no happy eggs to be had, that I'd have to go egg-less. It was too tough to swallow, and so I decided I would embark on a mission…
The Quest for the Happy Egg
Before the quest:
Before I started my quest, I was eating organic eggs. I thought that they were the best of the bunch, guaranteeing both free run and certified organic feed to the chickens. But, they weren’t entirely cruelty-free.
I've always tried to shop locally and organically wherever possible, and I don't mind making a longer trip in order to do so, so I was willing to do a little homework to find a better egg.
The initial findings:
I started out by doing some online research and found information that only confirmed what Glenn had written. The BC-SPCA's comparison chart (PDF) illustrates the differences between poultry and livestock that is “Conventional,” “SPCA Certified” and “Certified Organic (COABC).”
According to the chart the latter two are against de-beaking and allow for the most humane quality of life possible—including at the time of slaughter. However, these standards do not address the issue of the male chicks that are killed because they aren't egg producers, nor do they address what happens to laying hens after their two years of maximum egg productivity are up.
I checked out the Humane Society of the United State's Brief Guide to Egg Carton Labels and was horrified to discover that USDA-certified “Organic” egg producers allow forced molting—a.k.a. starving the birds—and beak cutting. It seemed that for the US the only label that prohibited these acts was “Animal Welfare Approved.” Not much use to me, however, here in Canada.
But with so many farms here in BC, I figured it was time to hit the road.
The ethical egg hunt
My mother, a doctor, has a nurse friend who sells her eggs at the Langley Memorial Hospital. I gave her a call to ask a few questions. She told me her chickens weren't organic, but that they certainly weren't in cages. They were roaming free on her farm and had all their beaks and claws present and accounted for. But when I asked where she sourced them, and what she did with them after they reached 2 years of age, I began to worry. She bought and sold her eggs at auction. That just means someone else is doing the dirty work of killing the male chicks, and that she gives someone else the opportunity to wield the executioner's axe after the hens are no longer “useful.”
So, technically, all her eggs are happy, but who knows how they are before her chicks arrive and after her hens leave.
I was happy that her hens had a good life while they wandered around her farm, but, for me, it just wasn't good enough to make me want to buy her eggs.
I headed out to Kelowna and asked around at the farmers market. I found an organic farmer, but he told me that when he bought his hens they all came de-beaked. I found that a little worrying since the BC Organic standards say that the hens can only be de-beaked if they're showing aggressive behaviour—and for hens to become aggressive they need to be in a crowded space that doesn't allow them to establish their natural "pecking order."
I decided to try one of the "big guys": Rabbit River Farms. I see them for sale in every local grocer in Vancouver, so when I saw their website, which gives a “small operation” feel and shows a picture of hens grazing on ample green grass, I was hopeful. The website tells of the bird's feed and access to pastures, but there's no mention of whether or not they de-beak, nor of where they source their chicks. I emailed them, and never got a reply.
Next, I headed to the West End farmers market, where I always shop for my groceries, and started chatting with Annamarie, the owner of Klippers Organic Acres, a husband and wife-run, certified Organic farm. I'd always bought my produce from them, and now that I was on my egg quest I didn't hesitate to quiz Annamarie about her eggs. They were organic, but what about all my other concerns?
Annamarie assured me that her hens were not de-beaked and that she kept her hens until the end of their natural lives, rather than disposing of them after they reached the unproductive age. I asked her how she could afford to do that, since all the other egg producers I had researched lose money as soon as their hens stop laying regularly but continue to consume the same amount of feed. She said that it was because her farm wasn’t an egg producer—they had hens because they liked having hens, plain and simple. They treat their hens and roosters like part of the farm ecosystem, they run through their orchards eating bugs, and generally live happy and peaceful lives.
I realized that Klippers' wasn't out to make money on its eggs, it was more that they sold the eggs that they couldn't consume. She wasn't making a profit on the eggs, she was just sharing some happy eggs with her community.
Questions to ask to ensure you’re eating ethical eggs
While Klippers' eggs were the only truly happy eggs I found, I realized that it's not as hard as Glenn had me initially believe to find a good egg.
Asking the right questions at any farmers market or local farm will likely point you in the direction of hens that are not being raised just for laying, but rather as part of the farmer's family, with the eggs that they lay being sold as a bonus.
So next time you're shopping at your local farmers market—or are taking a drive through Langley and stopping by a family farm—ask the right questions:
• Where do you get your chicks from?
• What happens to the males?
• What are the living conditions for your hens?
• What are they fed?
• Are they de-beaked or force-molted?
• Are they allowed to practice natural behaviours, such as pecking-order and
• What happens to the hens after they no longer lay an egg per day?
If you're satisfied with the answers that are given to those questions, you've found your happy egg.
Victoria Ronco is a sustainability geek who works as a communications consultant with several socially responsible businesses. She volunteers with VOKRA, helping abandoned and abused kittens find new and loving homes, and dreams of owning her own farm and living completely off of her own produce. Until that day, she's content to drive her zero-emission electric scooter to and from the West End farmers market (her favourite), carting home her locally grown loot.