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On Chickens and Eggs

I promised a couple of weeks ago to circle back to the issue of how the food you and I eat is produced and to perhaps dispel some of the most common rumours about your food supply. This week we will focus on chicken and egg production.

Which came first? Well, on our farm this year the answer is “chicks”. On May 6th, Chris brought home three dozen fuzzy one-day-old ones.

There seems to be about three main concerns expressed by consumers with respect to how their food is produced: the conditions under which the animals are raised and kept; the price of the food product and how much influence the farmer has over retail prices; and what the animals are given in terms of food, medicine and/or hormones.

In Alberta, anyone keeping livestock on their property must register with the Premises Identification Program of the Alberta Agriculture & Forestry department. This includes anyone keeping chickens or other farm animals within urban areas (where permitted via local bylaws, of course). Should there be a disease outbreak affecting a particular species in our area, the Department will issue news bulletins to those of us with those animals so that we can take the necessary additional biosecurity precautions to safeguard them.

There are maximum limits to how many chickens a farm may have before the farmer must obtain a license to participate in that segment of supply management. For egg producers in Alberta the limit is 300 chickens before licensing and a quota is required. Chicken farmers in Alberta can raise up to 2,000 birds a year before licensing and quota are mandatory. Licensing is part of the supply management process in which Canadian egg and chicken producers participate. The supply management process ensures that there is a steady supply of those food products to meet consumer demand. It enables licensed producers to plan their production cycle and to be able to accurately budget their expected income against expenses, which keeps things stable for both producer and consumer. Supply management ensures that rules and regulations are uniform across Canada, and it also makes the enforcement of said rules and regulations consistent and effective. Under less-regulated systems, industry policies – animal care, antimicrobial use, and more – may be implemented, but they are difficult to enforce. But the highly-organized nature of supply management means that national organizations are able to levy penalties on farmers who do not comply.

Even on large chicken farms, the birds cannot be confined to a cage and their barns are set up so that the birds can roam freely. On small farms like ours, our flock of three dozen hens have a heated hen house and an enclosed outside coop. When chicks are new, they are confined to a relatively small space inside the hen house with a brooder (heat) lamp or other heat source because they lack the ability to regulate their body temperatures for the first couple of weeks. By the time chicks are a week old their feathers are replacing the fuzzy down. It wasn’t unusual this spring to walk into the hen house and find little chicks perched all over as they tried out their new wings! We waited until they were a little bigger and then allowed them free access to the outdoor coop a couple of weeks ago.

Laying hens are fed a commercial feed mix containing wholesome grains and vegetable-based protein. One of my pet peeves is with a certain fast food chain that as recently as last year, advertised that they only used chicken without added hormones. There are absolutely no added hormones allowed in chicken or egg production. There are no added hormones or steroids or antibiotics in chicken feed. In fact, added hormones were banned in Canada from poultry and egg production fifty-three years ago! Level 1 antibiotics, which are the type more likely to create antibiotic resistance in humans, have also been banned in Canada in chicken and egg production.

Recently that same fast food chain abandoned its marketing campaign related to hormones, thanks in part to a better educated public, and is now attempting to set themselves apart from other fast food restaurants by claiming that their chicken is “free of antibiotics”. The truth is that all poultry destined for the food chain must be free of antibiotics.

As I mentioned, Level 1 antibiotic use by chicken farmers for preventative measures are banned in Canada. Antibiotics for poultry are segmented into four groupings by their strength, preferred option for treatment and whether other alternatives are available. The Chicken Farmers of Canada association acknowledges that antibiotics are an important part of human and animal medicine and must be used responsibly.

Aline Porrior, public relations officer with the Chicken Farmers of Canada notes, "not all chickens are given antibiotics, but when they are, it’s to help keep birds healthy, for the sake of the animal, as well as for food safety. After all, only healthy chickens pass into the food stream. Chicken Farmers of Canada supports the responsible use of antibiotics that have been approved by the Veterinary Drugs Directorate of Health Canada to ensure food safety, animal health and animal welfare." When chickens are transported to a processing plant, they are inspected by an inspector, who also reviews the health history of the birds within that flock. There are also random tests to ensure that medications, if used, were given properly and that withdrawal times were adhered to. Before it is put on the market, chicken meat is checked for quality, absence of disease and antibacterial residues.

Chicken Farmers of Canada’s On-Farm Food Safety Program (OFFSAP) is the national standard for chicken producers in Canada and the first program of its kind to receive full federal, provincial and territorial government recognition. It ensures that top-notch safety procedures and standardized safety systems are found on every Canadian chicken farm, from coast to coast, allowing Canadian chicken farmers to continue to produce a safe, high quality product for Canadian families. Audited annually, 100% of Canada’s chicken farmers are certified on the program.

I recently spoke with Mr. Marty Brett, senior communications officer with The Chicken Farmers of Canada regarding the steps taken to ensure optimal animal care. Mr. Brett noted, "The Canadian chicken industry works closely with its partners to ensure that stringent regulations related to the care and handling of our birds are met and followed. After all, it is in the best interest of all industry members to see that all of the birds are raised the best way possible."

The Chicken Farmers of Canada are one of several producer associations represented on the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC). The Council has developed codes of practice for the care and handling of a variety of farm animals and has created a process for the development of animal care assessment programs.

As part of this dedication, Chicken Farmers of Canada has implemented an auditable Animal Care Program designed to demonstrate and maintain the high standards of care on Canadian chicken farms. 97% of farmers are currently certified on the program and are audited annually to assess the implementation of the program and determine if its mandatory requirements are being maintained. To date, support for the implementation of the program has come from: the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, the Further Poultry Processors Association of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.

On our farm, so far we have never been in a situation where any of our poultry or cattle required antibiotics. None of our neighbours, some of whom have farmed for over fifty years, have ever used antibiotics on their chickens. Ironically it has been a couple of our horses and one of our dogs – an accident-prone black lab cross aptly named Princess – who have required antibiotics from time to time as prescribed by our veterinary team.

Not all chickens are alike and are bred for different purposes. We raise leghorn chickens for laying because they are prolific layers, and we have raised Cornish giants for broiler/roasting (meat) chickens in the past. White leghorns produce white eggs, brown leghorns produce brown eggs. A rooster is not needed for egg production. There is no truth to the urban myth that either white or brown eggs have more nutritional value than the other. Araucana chickens produce pastel colored eggs in shades of blue, pink and green. I sometimes see these pretty eggs at farmer’s markets. Look for them if you want to surprise someone with green eggs and ham for breakfast!

For our small farm, currently we have a healthy flock of brown leghorn hens and plan to significantly expand our egg production program over the next few years. Keeping chickens is much more expensive and time-consuming than what many people expect. Except for a few weeks each year when they are molting, each hen will lay an egg a day. This doesn’t seem like much until you are washing, packaging, and refrigerating twenty dozen eggs or more per week, based on a flock of only three dozen hens!

When our new hens begin laying eggs in about four months, the eggs will be classified as “free run” and “omega-3”. “Free run” is much safer for the flock and provides them with the same access to the outdoors as “free range, but with more safety from natural predators like coyotes, hawks, and foxes that are abundant in our area.

Ever wonder how some eggs are labeled “Omega 3” and some aren’t? Some producers, including us, also add ground flax seed to chicken feed. Flax is an excellent source of omega 3’s, which is then absorbed in the yolk of each egg that those chickens produce. Flax is an expensive supplement, which is why Omega 3 enriched eggs are more expensive than regular eggs.

Laying hens also require a source of calcium in order to produce hard eggshells. Most commercial sources offer ground oyster shell. Hens who do not have access to a calcium source will eventually stop laying eggs.

Free run chickens will also forage for bugs and small insects, a behaviour that is hard-wired to their species. Our hens absolutely love fresh grass clippings (we don’t use any chemicals on our lawn) and the chlorophyll makes their yolks a deep yellow.

Neither chicken nor egg farmers in Canada receive any form of subsidy whatsoever for their products. They also do not set the price for their products. Prices are set by retailers and restaurants and they charge what they think the market will bear. Licensed producers in Canada typically see a twelve cent profit on every carton of 12 large eggs that they sell. That’s right. A penny an egg. By the time those eggs hit your local grocery shelves they are anywhere from two to four weeks old and usually about double in price or more from what the farmer received. Eggs purchased directly from the farmer are, in my opinion, far superior in both taste and freshness.

Chicken pricing is the same. The average price paid by a commercial retailer to a chicken producer for her product is about $1.58 per kilo, or about 72 cents per pound. If you’ve purchased chicken at your local supermarket, the difference in cost is for the services provided after the product leaves the farm chicken coop and before it arrives on your table. Within the average cost of a restaurant chicken dinner, the farmer’s share for raising that meat chicken for several weeks is typically between $1.06 and $1.30, much less than the gratuity you will pay the server for the hour you spent in that restaurant.

As a transplanted city-girl-gone-country and someone who thinks that our health is dependent on the quality of the food we eat, I am an enthusiastic ambassador for shopping locally for the freshest products you can find. I strongly encourage you to consider shopping at your local farmer’s markets. I make this recommendation without any conflict of interest since we don’t sell our own products at a market. Buying your fresh produce, eggs, honey, dairy, chicken, beef, and pork products at your local farmer’s market ensures that you have the freshest, safest, highest quality food available to feed your family. It also helps to support your local economy and reduce your carbon footprint by limiting the fuel associated with transporting your food supply. If you are interested and have the freezer space, look for a local producer from whom to directly purchase your grass fed beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, or bison products. Chris and I sometimes market our registered grass and grain fed Angus cattle through the licensed auction process and sometimes we sell privately. Our private buyers have the knowledge and assurance of knowing how our animals are raised and that their products are being cut and wrapped to their specifications by a local, licensed journeyman butcher. Best of all, the overall price per pound is a fraction of what you will pay at your supermarket. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

I have two farm recipes that I wanted to share with you. The first one uses farm fresh eggs as its protein and is my go-to breakfast sandwich, packing a solid 13 grams of protein and the healthy type of unsaturated fat from avocado. I don't use the microwave for this as the egg is much fluffier when cooked on top of the stove. It takes about three minutes to prepare and will keep you feeling satisfied for hours.

Breakfast Egg and Avocado Sandwich - 1 serving

1 small whole wheat hamburger bun

1 large egg, fork beaten

pinch salt

pepper to taste

2 Tbsp. mashed fresh avocado

2 leaves of butter lettuce

Toast the bun lightly. While it is toasting, spray cooking spray into a mini egg pan (about 4 inches in diameter) and place on medium heat. Fork-whisk the egg, adding salt and pepper. Pour into hot egg pan. Place bun halves on a plate (or on a piece of foil if you are rushing out the door) and add the avocado and lettuce to one half. Slide a spatula under the egg to allow uncooked portions to run underneath. Flip when top is semi-cooked and cook for about 20-30 seconds longer. Place egg on lettuce, add the bun top, wrap in foil to keep warm, and enjoy. This is fast, easy, filling and healthy.

You can add a slice of real cheese (processed cheese slices contain up to 49% additives and fillers and are not a healthy choice), additional vegetables such as leftover mushrooms, asparagus, fresh tomato, onion, sprouts - whatever you have on hand. You can add heat with hot sauce or salsa.

This second recipe is one of my signature chicken dishes, adapted from www.allrecipes.com. It is quick enough to be a weeknight supper, budget-friendly, and elegant enough to double up for dinner guests. I usually serve this with brown rice or naan bread and a tossed green salad. I hope you try one or both recipes, and do let me know what you think!

Chicken in Sweet Pepper Sauce - 2 servings

2 (6 ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

3 tablespoons flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 Tablespoon butter

1 Tablespoon olive oil

3/4 cup chicken broth (I use low sodium)

1/2 cup white wine (or additional broth if you don't want to use wine)

1/4 cup chopped sweet yellow pepper

1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper

1/4 cup diced fresh tomatoes

1 Tablespoon minced fresh cilantro

Slice chicken horizontally to create 4 thin pieces. In large resealable bag, combine the flour, salt and pepper; add chicken and shake to coat. In a large skillet over medium heat, combine butter and olive oil. Add chicken and brown on both sides. Stir in the broth, wine, and chopped peppers. Bring to a boil; cook for 5 minutes or until liquid is reduced by half. Stir in the tomatoes and cilantro.

Until next week!



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