COLUMN: Poultry industry changing with the times

There is the old saying about not counting your chickens before they hatch.

There is the old saying about not counting your chickens before they hatch. According to an interesting article in the Wednesday edition of this newspaper, and in a detailed story from Associated Press last week, regarding McDonald’s trend to free-run eggs, there is a whole mess of chickens that will never hatch.

And that is what the egg-laying industry is all about … supplying us with nutritious, delicious eggs for use in everything from baking and breakfasts to the ubiquitous Egg McMuffin. So successful and popular is the latter that McDonald’s has now decided to offer it, only stateside for now, 24/7, which it appears is throwing the U.S. egg production system for a bit of a loop.

The U.S. has, and perhaps still is in the midst of, a serious avian flu crisis which we know well here, but the magnitude of the American cull means McDonald’s increased consumption will place a demand on the industry that, while perhaps not creating a consumer shortage, will certainly drive up prices.

It appears that situation is only relevant to the U.S., but regardless, demand for eggs in B.C. by the restaurant chain is having a significant effect here as producers transition from caged birds to “free-run.”

As a kid growing up we had a chicken coop and a dozen or so “free-range” chickens. Free-range, as most know, are chickens that forage outside pens and buildings, eating greenery, bugs and almost anything thing else the little feathered omnivores consider tasty.

The result of that exterior grazing, of course, are deep golden yokes with, in my opinion, incomparable flavor, and even now are the only eggs in the few dozen I buy each year.

McDonald’s, on the other hand, consumes a remarkable two billion eggs a year worldwide, 120 million of them from Canadian farmers. When you factor in the other fast-food chains like A&W, Subway and a host of other restaurants, the egg-producing industry must be huge to meet the demand.

According to Wednesday’s News’ story, more than half of the 840 million eggs produced annually in B.C. are laid right here in Abbotsford.

That’s a lot of “cackle berries.”

And the new trend for restaurants is to transition their egg-buying from “cruelty-free” caged-bird production to free-run, which means the chickens get to socialize, lay eggs in nests and, generally speaking, have a more “humane” existence.

I’ve never been inside an egg farm, really have no desire to, and can’t comment on the degree/opinion, or lack thereof, of “cruelty” and “humane” that is now driving consumer desires. From the News’ story however, it appears the free-run chickens are “happier.”

As noted earlier, my experience with chickens goes back to my childhood and I know they seemed to be a content bunch, scratching and rooting about in the garden.

They also seemed to find places to lay eggs other than their nest boxes, which meant each summer our flock would grow 10-fold as hens and chicks appeared seemingly from nowhere. The upside to that was, in the fall, we not only ate eggs but a bounty of chicken, too.

Since I live on acreage, I’ve often toyed with the idea of having a few chickens running about. Then I remember that chickens, fully free-range ones that have no boundaries, occasionally decide that the front porch is a favourite resting, and pooping, place.

I also discovered last week, while involuntarily hosting a couple of chickens on the back lawn from my neighbour’s free-range flock, that my dog doesn’t appreciate interlopers of the feathered kind.

Regrettably, one less chicken for the neighbour and confirmation for me that my eggs will continue to come from the market, at least for as long as my dog is alive.

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