Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why do they give chickens antibiotics?

That's a great question.  And the answer depends on who you're hearing it from.  According to the Chicken Farmers of Canada:

Antibiotics play an important role in providing a safe product for consumers, as well as in animal welfare and in animal health. Antibiotics help to maintain healthy birds, thereby ensuring a safe food supply for consumers. .... A small amount of antibiotics may be, but is not always, included in chicken feed to prevent disease.
That sounds reasonable enough.  But the story doesn't end there.  There are numerous other sources warning that the widespread and unregulated use of antibiotics in Canada is resulting in meat contaminated with antibiotic resistant bacteria.  This is what Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Food Animals has to say on the subject:
Canadian doctors and scientists say that feeding antibiotics to healthy beef cattle, poultry and hogs poses a danger to humans, and they want to government to investigate the practice.

Lacing animals' feed with low-dose antibiotics to accelerate their growth is spreading drug-resistant bacteria to humans and rendering common antibiotics useless to treat illness, they say.

A food chain contaminated by drug-resistant bacteria bodes ill for both public health and the cost of health care, and as drug resistance in microbes increases, the number of effective antibiotics in the doctors' arsenal has dropped.

Notice that the poultry industry talks about keeping birds healthy and preventing disease, whereas other sources point to antibiotics being used to stimulate growth, which is clearly an important factor in the highly competitive, margin-driven poultry industry.  For more information, take a look at this PBS article

Ranchers and farmers ... discovered decades ago that small doses of antibiotics administered daily would make most animals gain as much as 3 percent more weight than they otherwise would. In an industry where profits are measured in pennies per animal, such weight gain was revolutionary.

Although it is still unclear exactly why feeding small "sub-therapeutic" doses of antibiotics, like tetracycline, to animals makes them gain weight, there is some evidence to indicate that the antibiotics kill the flora that would normally thrive in the animals' intestines, thereby allowing the animals to utilize their food more effectively.
Just in case you're wondering, Windsor CLUCK is not suggesting the production of urban chickens for meat consumption.  That's a whole different topic, and CLUCK is interested purely in legalized hens for egg production.   We are, however, concerned about the honesty of the messages coming from the poultry industry.

If we can't trust them on the reasons why antibiotics are given to chickens produced for their meat, should we believe everything they say about the way their eggs are produced as well?

Antibiotic usage in grocery store chicken

If you missed CBC Marketplace this week, do head over to the website to watch last night's segment on your computer. 

They took 100 samples of grocery store chicken and found antibiotic resistant bacteria in a disturbingly high percentage.

The show looked into possible causes, and also performed a test to look for contamination in the kitchen, even while preparing the meat using the kind of care that we are warned to take when handling meat.

This raises some disturbing questions about what the poultry industry calls therapeutic antibiotic usage and is well worth watching.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Battery Hen Cage Standards in Canada

More than 95% of the eggs commonly purchased by consumers in grocery stores are the regular white kind that come from battery caged hens.  It's also what you eat in any kind of processed food that contains eggs.  So this post is focused on this large majority.

The Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals has a helpful PDF with information on different kinds of eggs available for purchase. 

It also provides a table that shows the battery cage standards for those different types of eggs.  These standards are voluntary, but let's assume the eggs in the store come from producers who maintain the standards.

The table probably doesn't mean very much to the average person. But here is a really easy way to see it viscerally.

Take a sheet of regular 8 1/2" x 11" paper.  You probably have several in front of you as you're reading this.

Now measure it.  Or you can take my word for it.  The area of that piece of paper is 574 cm2.

No, it's not what you're thinking.  That is not the floor space allocated to a battery hen.

Take your piece of paper and remove 20% of it.  If you want to be precise, you can cut off 6.9cm.

What you are left with is how much space a battery hen has to move around in, all her life. The standard floor space allocated to a battery hen is 432cm2.

Oh, and if you buy the pricier omega 3 eggs:  they also come from battery chickens.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Wyandottes on Wyandotte?

At last week's council meeting we heard a vet tell the councillors that backyard chickens need to be protected from the cold because they are subtropical birds.  Well, as it happens, this is only partially true.  They may have originated from warmer climates a very long time ago, but there are cold-hardy chicken breeds that can survive quite well in an outdoor coop in Windsor's climate.

If you're planning to invest in a stealth coop in Windsor (and we've heard from several people in the past week or two who are doing this), you should take a look at this article from on heritage breeds.  Some are better for meat production and others are better for eggs, and there is information on their cold hardiness as well.

Oh, and take a look at the Wyandottes right at the end of the article:
Originally possessing a silver-laced pattern in the 19th century, the Wyandotte can now be found as golden-laced, white, buff, partridge, silvered, penciled and other varieties. This hardy breed is even tempered, cold tolerant and adaptable to numerous management practices. The Wyandotte produces plentiful, large eggs, and the breast meat is succulent, making it an excellent food source as a part of the home flock.