10/21/2013 11:30 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Alberta chicken farms using inhumane practices, undercover video suggests

An animal rights group has released a secretly recorded video it says shows disturbing, inhumane conditions at two factory farms in Alberta whose eggs, the group alleges, eventually wind up in Egg McMuffins sold at McDonald's restaurants in Canada. 

The footage was recorded last summer by an undercover investigator for Mercy for Animals Canada, the Canadian wing of the California-based animal rights group, and was shown on CTV's investigative television program W5 last week.

The investigator shot the footage while employed as a farm worker at two large Alberta farms: Ku-ku Farms in Morinville, about 35 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, and Creekside Grove Farms in Spruce Grove, roughly 35 kilometres west of the provincial capital.

It reportedly shows thousands of chickens crammed into filthy wire battery cages, in some instances with dead hens left lying next to them. Kuku houses about 120,000 hens while Creekside has about 100,000, according to the report.

Crammed, filthy conditions

Thereport said the video taken at Creekside shows hens crammed 50 to a cage, standing on barren wire, where they will spend the first 20 weeks of their lives. Other hens can be seen clambering over them to get at food and water and occasionally escaping only to end up on the hopper, "where they are covered in feces and sometimes mangled by the machinery," the report says.

In the video, farm workers are also seen using a method called "thumping" to kill sick or injured chickens, smashing the birds against a hard surface. According to Mercy for Animals and the W5 report

A University of Guelph expert on hen raising who helped draft the National Farm Animal Care Council's reviewed the footage told the group and the methods seen in the footage are not acceptable practices in the industry.

"The high number of trapped, sick and injured birds in the cages, as well as those forced to live on the manure belt, is unacceptable," said Ian Duncan, a professor of applied ethology at the southwestern Ontario university. "Additionally, the killing methods used in this facility, namely, throwing chicks against a hard surface or suffocating them in garbage bags, is completely unacceptable."

'Every Egg McMuffin represents misery' 

The animal rights group alleges that the farms are part of a supply chain that leads to McDonald's. It says Creekside supplies chicks to Ku-ku, which sells eggs to Burnbrae, which, according to Mercy for Animals, is "McDonald's Canada's exclusive provider of eggs for Egg McMuffins​." 

"Every Egg McMuffin represents misery and deprivation for a hen who is crammed into a cage so small she can't even spread her wings or walk," the group said in a news release.

McDonald's, however, claims it does not get its eggs from the Alberta farms.

"We care about the humane treatment of animals and believe animals should be free from cruelty, abuse and neglect — abuse is never tolerated," the company said in a statement.

"We have strict policies in place concerning the treatment of animals that our suppliers must adhere to at all times. We also work with our suppliers and outside experts to continuously improve our standards and practices, both within McDonald’s and across the industry."

The investigator who recorded the footage is reportedly still working undercover for the group Mercy for Animals.

Voluntary code of practice

Handling of animals on farms such as those that appear in the video is governed only by a voluntary code of practice, and inspections are conducted by Egg Farmers of Canada, the industry's marketing and lobby organization, and its provincial branches, whose boards include some of the very farmers they are charged with overseeing.

But W5 found that the industry group tends to focus more on whether eggs are safe for consumption and whether the farmer has the right number of chickens allotted under the industry's market quota system rather than on the well-being of the animals laying the eggs.

When Egg Farmers of Canada found out W5 planned to air the Alberta footage, it sent out an advisory to farmers asking them not to allow media on their premises.

The investigative program also met with resistance form the owners of the two farms, who referred the program's reporters  to Egg Farmers of Alberta, which refused an on-air interview before it had fully assessed the situation and determined whether corrective action was required.

On Monday, Egg Farmers of Canada released the following statement from its chairman, Peter Clarke:

"As a fifth-generation egg farmer and chair of our industry, I have visited hundreds of Canada's more than 1,000 egg farms. I have never seen hens treated in the manner shown. I share in the public's response to the video. The images were unacceptable. However, I object to any perception that this is in any way common, tolerated or representative. It simply is not.

"The standards of our industry were set with the assistance of scientists, farmers, veterinarians and other third parties. Enforcement falls on Egg Farmers of Canada, provincial boards and a national network of inspectors. We are investigating the available video now and will ensure necessary changes are made."