Putting chickens before eggs

This Easter, you won't find the executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society hunting for eggs. Debra Probert hardly eats them. When she does, she makes sure they're certified organic. But the animal-rights advocate doesn't expect everyone to ban eggs Benny.

"We're very realistic," Probert told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from Columbus, Ohio, where she was attending a United Poultry Concerns conference. "The VHS promotes veganism, that's the most important way people can help animals. But most people consume the product, and they're inherently kind. That's why we say organic and only organic eggs."

Most egg eaters, though, are faced with a far more complex choice than whether or not to shell out for organic. Stand in front of the egg refrigerator at the Davie Street Safeway and the selection is dizzying. Among the more than 10 choices on the shelves are regular eggs in different colours, brands, and sizes; Omega 3 eggs; organic eggs; and free-range eggs, not to be confused with free-run eggs.

At the Robson Street Capers Community Market, all the eggs sold are organic, but the choice is no less complicated. The feel-good eggs of the year-the Rabbit River Farms organic (and B.C. Society for the Protection of Animals-certified) extra-larges-cost a whopping $5.99 a dozen. Compared with Safeway's $2.80 for a regular, nonorganic large brown dozen, there's got to be more driving an organic buy than just whim.

Most of us choose cheaply. Wire-mesh battery cages, which usually house chickens that produce the least expensive products, are the birthplace of about 75 percent of the eggs sold in B.C., according to Peter Whitlock, operations manager of the B.C. Egg Marketing Board. He said the board does not make judgments.

"Our point of view for years has been consumer choice," he told the Straight. "Whatever the consumer wants we'll make sure is there in stores….We don't take sides. Whatever people believe in, we'll have a product."

Battery-cage eggs, at about 23 cents each, are the least expensive choice. These eggs provoke the ire of animal-rights advocates such as Probert, though, who say six hens squeezed into a small cage with a bottom less than the size of a sheet of paper each is cruel. The federal recommendations, as stated in the Canadian Agri-Food Research Council's (CARC) code of practice for laying hens, are minimal and voluntary (www.carc-crac.ca/). In an October 2005 report, the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals cites cramped quarters, sloppy debeaking, and a lack of protective legislation for the poor condition of Canada's 26 million laying hens. The cage system, according to the report, produces about 6.9 billion eggs per year.

Omega 3 eggs, at about 25 cents each, are fed a different diet than regular battery hens, which changes the fats in the yolk. The all-vegetarian feed boosts the egg's vitamin E and Omega 3 polyunsaturates and reduces the egg's saturated fat, according to the Born 3 Marketing Corporation. However, the Omega 3 designation does not influence how the hens are housed.

Free-run eggs cost about 30 cents each. As defined by the CARC, free-run systems do not keep hens in a cage but allow them to run freely in a barn. Advantages, according to CARC, include "the expression of more of the behaviours normally associated with birds" such as dust bathing, wing flapping, perching, and foraging.

Free-range eggs cost about 39 cents each. Along with an open run of the barn, these hens have access to outside, weather permitting.

Organic eggs cost anywhere from 40 to 50 cents each. As of 2004, this province had the most organic layers out of any in Canada: 48,218. That's according to the Certified Organic Association of B.C. (COABC), which certifies organic products on behalf of the provincial government. Organic eggs are free-range, they're fed an organic diet, and the farm is inspected for a long list of requirements (see www.certifiedorganic.bc.ca/) by the COABC. In addition, egg farmers can have their farms certified by the BCSPCA for their treatment of the hens. So far, only one B.C. farm has an SPCA designation: Rabbit River Farms, in Richmond.

For the VHS, egg layers are the top priority in their ongoing fight for animal welfare. Its Web site, www.chickenout.ca/, urges consumers to make informed choices about eggs.

"You get what you pay for," pro-organic Probert said. "At $6 a dozen, they're such an incredible source of protein, and most of us are not poor. It's an unbelievable difference in the lives of the hens."