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Council gives free range to egg probe

Animal welfare group asks city to put chickens before eggs

By Matthew Hoekstra
Staff Reporter
Richmond Review
Sep 30 2006

Twelve years ago, Stephen Easterbrook left his business career to put his eggs in one basket.

He joined the ranks of farmers and became the first producer in Western Canada of certified organic eggs under the name Rabbit River Farms. His mission was to produce eggs in a humane environment and give his hens the benefit of vitamins and minerals from natural vegetarian feed.

"There's quite a stark contrast between free-ranging chickens and battery confinement," he said. "Most people don't understand the conditions under which their food is produced."

The other side of egg producing is the battery cage-where hens spend their lives crowded in wire cages with four to six other birds.

Now civic politicians are being asked to do something about it.

Bruce Passmore of the Vancouver Humane Society asked council Monday to adopt a policy prohibiting city facilities from using eggs from caged hens. He also asked council to draft a proclamation supporting the move to cage-free eggs and encouraging businesses to choose products from more humane and sustainable systems.

"Most people don't want to support this type of caging system, but the problem is education. Most people just don't know what they're buying," he told council.

Council has referred the matter to staff-even though it's not clear if battery cage operations exist here or how often the city uses eggs in its cafeterias.

Staff have also been asked for ways to prevent battery cage farms from being established in the city. Mayor Malcolm Brodie voted against the move, suggesting the humane society's concern was not an issue in Richmond.

Passmore said there are 26 million egg-laying hens kept in battery cages in Canada even though there are viable, more humane alternatives available.

Unlike their battery-caged cousins, Easterbrook's hens are free to eat, exercise and socialize as they wish on certified organic farmland. They have access to the outdoors and to nesting boxes.

The East Richmond farmer has a minimum of one acre of land for every 1,000 hens. Battery operations can have 20,000 birds in a barn of 15,000 square feet, he said.

He said consumers are becoming better educated about where their food comes from and what the inputs-or animal feed-are.

"So consumers, now being more educated about what they're eating, are prepared to pay a higher price because they understand there's more labour involved, there's a higher cost to produce organic grains and organic soy, which is the protein component in the feed."

Rabbit River Farms eggs are available at retailers throughout B.C., including Save-On Foods, but cost about twice as much as regular eggs.

"Poultry are very gregarious animals so they're able to live together, fortunately, but nature never intended them to live seven to a cage and have less than one square foot per bird to live in."

A call to the B.C. Egg Marketing Board, which manages the supply of eggs available to consumers, was not returned by press time.