Egg farming in Canada is a billion-dollar industry with over 600 million dozen eggs produced each year.

But few Canadians know just how those eggs are produced. W5 obtained secretly recorded video from the animal rights group, Mercy for Animals Canada (MFAC) that gives a glimpse into the lives of the birds whose lives are dedicated to the production of eggs.

Down a quiet road, deep in Alberta farm country, not far from Edmonton, is a massive egg production facility known as Kuku Farms. Housing about 120,000 battery hens, they live out their lives in cramped cages, producing almost an egg a day for a year until they are considered spent and killed.

The video shows row upon row of hens crammed into battery-cages. Nearby are dead birds that appeared to have been there for some of time, birds with missing neck feathers and some with severe urine scalding on their backsides.

A few kilometers away is another barn, Creekside Grove Farms. In this barn about 100,000 chicks spend the first 20 weeks of their lives crammed 50 to a cage, standing on barren wire. These are chicks that will eventually become egg-layers.

The undercover video shows some chicks injured while others clamber over them for access to food and water.

Other chicks can be seen escaping from the crowded cages to end up on the hopper, where they are covered in feces and sometimes mangled by the machinery. Perhaps most disturbingly, sick or injured chicks are seen being killed by a practice called "thumping" -- where a bird is smashed against a hard surface to kill it. On several occasions the video shows birds that survived but are left in a garbage bag along with a pile of already dead chicks.

The video inside Kuku and Creekside Grove was taken by an MFAC undercover investigator during the summer of 2013. She is still working as an undercover investigator for the animal rights group so W5 agreed not to reveal her identity. The undercover operative says she did not target any specific barns. Instead, in her quest to chronicle practices in the egg industry, she applied online at several egg barns. Kuku and Creekside Grove were the first to offer her a job.

"To the general public seeing the footage looks horrific, but unfortunately these are standard egg industry practices," she told W5. "I felt like every day was a nightmare. I was really taken aback. I had had exposure to chickens before, but nothing prepared me for that."

Code of Practice

Industries such as the egg business have a Code of Practice that defines the care and handling of pullets (baby chicks) and layers, but the code is completely voluntary. Any oversight is conducted by the industry themselves. It is up to the Egg Farmers of Canada to perform the inspections, but as W5 learned, their primary focus appears to be the food safety of the eggs, or whether the farmer has the number of birds allotted under the quota system, not whether the animals themselves are receiving adequate care.

According to the undercover operative, Egg Farmers of Canada inspectors visited Creekside Grove facilities while she was employed there. Workers were given 24 hours advance notice to clean up the barns. She told W5 that the barn initially received a failing grade for not having a pullet manual on hand. According to the investigator, when one was handed over, the failing grade was changed to a pass.

At the University of Guelph, Ian Duncan is a world-leading expert on the care of hens. A Professor of Applied Ethology, Duncan was one of the people involved in writing the National Farm Council Code of Practice.

When W5 showed him the undercover video taken inside the barns, Duncan was unequivocal: "The general state, the number of injured and, and sick birds that we saw in the film clips, all of these things are ethically, completely unacceptable. As for the practice of ‘thumping’, according to Duncan: "It’s not an approved way of killing chicks."

"The few standards there are, are put in place by industry and compliance is completely voluntary so without further undercover investigations like ours, there is no meaningful watchdog out there to ensure that animals aren’t suffering in horrendous ways," Twyla Francois, head of Mercy for Animals Canada, told W5's Senior Reporter Victor Malarek in interview.

Seeking comment

W5 approached the owner of both barns, Amin Valji, offering to show him the video and to obtain his comment about what we were watching. We left messages with his brother, barn manager Karim Valji, who promised to pass them on. Amin Valji refused W5's request for an interview, and in an e-mail he referred W5 to the Egg Farmers of Alberta, telling us: "They can provide the perspective you are looking for."

The Egg Farmers of Alberta (EFA) is a marketing and lobby group, a rebranded version of the old marketing board. Its board of directors includes farmer representatives, including the owner of Kuku and Creekside Grove, Amin Valji.

At the EFA website the organization's annual report includes a letter from the chairman espousing ethical practices: "Today’s consumers know what they want: safe, nutritious food that is being produced in an animal welfare friendly environment."

After numerous e-mails and messages, W5 arranged to show the undercover video to representatives of the Egg Farmers of Alberta, including the marketing manager, David Webb. Following a private screening, at which no cameras or recording devices were present, Webb refused to an on-camera interview.

Webb did send W5 a statement: "We take our animal care responsibilities very seriously and we remain committed to determining the extent of the situation and corrective action required. Since a comprehensive assessment and analysis, as well as remediation, is our priority, we respectfully decline the further interviews you propose."

A further indication that no one in the Canadian egg industry wanted to discuss the contents of the video and the conditions seen on the two Alberta farm, W5 discovered the Egg Farmers of Canada had sent out a nation-wide security alert to egg farmers across Canada, warning them about our story and advising farmers to "keep your barn doors locked" and farm gates closed, to prevent any visits by reporters.