Free-range freedoms: How food labels are helping hens
The chicken coop at Rabbit River Farms in Richmond, B.C., may look crowded, but the hens here are actually the fortunate ones.
Unlike more than 99 per cent of egg-laying hens on Canadian farms, the 6,000 egg-laying birds on this free-range organic farm aren’t packed into tiny battery cages with no access to natural sunlight. The wire cages are about the size of a single sheet of paper.
These birds are free to engage in their natural behaviours, like roosting, roaming, dust-bathing, and even the simple act of stretching their wings.
They’re allowed outside every day for hours to graze through the organic pasture, enjoying the sunshine and wide-open farm land.
Rabbit River Farms is Canada’s first certified organic egg farm, and was the nation’s first to be certified humane. Its chicks are fed a completely organic, non-GMO diet.
It also helped spearhead the SPCA-certified food program, a consumer food labelling program aimed at improving the welfare of farm animals in Canada.
Farmer Steve Easterbrook said while the majority of Canadian chickens will never feel grass beneath their feet, his flock will never spend a minute inside a cage – and spend one-third of their life outside exploring the pasture. It’s a good life, he says.
Brandy Street of the SPCA-certified food program agrees, saying caged-confinement systems cause increased physical and mental stress for chickens.
“They are housed very closely together, they can’t even spread their wings, they get picked on and they can’t escape from one another one when that happens,” she said.
“It’s not a very pleasant environment. These hens are pretty lucky to be able to live in an environment like this.”
Rabbit River Farms eggs sell for around $6.50 to $7.10 per dozen, about twice the cost of regular grocery store eggs.
Easterbrook says consumers are willing to pay extra for the privilege of knowing where their food comes from, and they have a hard time keeping up with demand for the ethical eggs.
“We have a lot of people who purchase our eggs because they’re SPCA-certified, and a lot of people like to choose their food based on their personal beliefs about the way livestock is handled,” he said.
“People want to know where their food comes from, and want to know it’s raised in a healthy and ethical manner.”
The red SPCA-certified label on food products means the animals are provided with the “Five Freedoms,” including freedom from hunger, thirst, distress, discomfort – and the ability to express behaviours that promote well-being.
Under the program standards, egg-laying hens are free from cages, pregnant pigs aren’t in farrowing crates and gestation stalls, and painful procedures like dehorning and toe clipping are prohibited.
Animals in the program are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones, and live in environments designed to promote comfort and healthy social interactions.
Farms that sign on to the voluntary program have to pass an on-farm assessment and are subject to random annual inspections by the BC SPCA.
“We’re being invited out to farms by farmers who are doing the right thing – so we can look at their animals and we can guarantee to consumers that these farmers are raising their animals in the right way,” she said.
Consumers can find SPCA-certified products and retailers using this interactive map. You can currently buy from farmers’ markets, grocery stores and restaurants and caterers.
Major retailers that have signed on include MarketPlace IGA, Save on Foods, Price Smart, Thrifty Foods, Capers Community Markets, Choices Markets, Nesters Markets, T&T Supermarkets, Urban Fare, Whole Foods and Famous Foods.
The program includes farms in B.C., Alberta and Ontario and now includes certifications for beef and dairy cattle, sheep, pigs, egg-laying chickens, turkeys and broiler/meat chickens.
B.C. has the largest amount of businesses signed onto the program of all the participating provinces.