TORONTO -- After breaking into an egg farm he was denied permission to tour, a student at one of Canada's premier agricultural research facilities wrote an anonymous account of what he called a nightmarish situation involving dead birds in aisles and filthy, defeathered hens in cramped wire cages.
The action, animal-rights activists say, provided a rare look at what they claim is the hidden horror of egg barns in Canada that are no better than those in the United States despite industry claims to the contrary.
They also say Canadians would be shocked to discover that the normal treatment of hens amounts to routine cruelty that would never be tolerated if inflicted on dogs or cats.
"It's not common knowledge to the general public that these are the conditions under which these animals are raised,'' said Debra Probert, executive-director of the Vancouver Humane Society, and long-time activist.
"It's pretty horrific.''
But the industry firmly rejects allegations of mistreatment, saying national guidelines that are in place are based on the best scientific information available.
Most farmers live up to the voluntary codes of practice, said Bernadette Cox, spokeswoman for the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency.
"Egg farmers are very concerned about the handling and the welfare of their laying hens,'' said Cox.
"It's their first priority.''
The 22-year-old biology student at Ontario's University of Guelph said he broke into a nearby egg barn on three occasions this summer to document conditions inside after his request to visit was turned down.
An anonymous account of the break-ins at LEL Farms, along with disturbing photographs, was published recently in the Peak, an independent student newspaper at the school.
"The aisles were littered with dead birds,'' the student wrote. "Wing and tail feathers had been worn down so much that they looked like porcupine quills (and) birds were caked with the feces that dropped from the cages above.''
In all, about 20,000 birds were kept in stacked wired cages, five birds to a cage, with each hen given space "less than a sheet of typing paper,'' the article said.
While the student admitted he only found two dead birds in the aisles, he said there were dead hens in some cages, decaying bird parts on conveyor belts and live birds in the manure pit.
The student later said his "undercover investigation,'' modelled on similar ones done in U.S., had left him "dumbfounded.''
"It was like beyond my worst nightmare,'' the student said.
Probert said it's the first time anyone has documented conditions inside an egg barn in this fashion and said the material gathered would be used to wage a campaign for change.
Lloyd Weber, the veterinarian-owner of LEL Farms and member of the dean's veterinary advisory council, called the article "garbage'' and "terribly one-sided.''
Weber, who has called in police to investigate the break-ins, conceded there may have been a dead bird left in an aisle, but denied any mistreatment of the hens.
"They tried to give the impression that the birds were under severe stress,'' said Weber. "(But) the density does meet the guidelines for housing birds in cages.''
While one animal-welfare expert called the report "a bit exaggerated and hysterical,'' he said it did reveal some unpleasant truths about the industry as a whole.
"The egg-laying sector of the poultry industry, has become too intensified,'' said Ian Duncan, a professor at the university. "It is time for change.''
Harry Pelissero, general manager of Ontario Egg Producers, said his agency does rate how well producers comply with the codes of practice, but those ratings are kept confidential.
"We encourage producers to live up (to the codes),'' he said. "A happy hen is a producing hen.''
Pelissero said barns are kept locked and outsiders kept out for "biosecurity'' reasons -- to ensure diseases such as avian flu aren't spread.
Duncan noted that Europe is moving to ban so-called battery cages outright. Instead, "furnished'' cages that are larger and contain perches along with nesting and dust-bathing facilities provide a richer environment for the hens, he said.
Another alternative is a barn in which hens are allowed to run free.
Such systems add an estimated 10 per cent to the price of eggs, Duncan said.
"The general public needs to think if it wants to go on with its demand for extremely cheap food or (be) prepared to pay a little more for more humanely produced food.''
Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission barred the use of the industry's ''Animal Care Certified'' seal on egg cartons after activists complained it misled consumers concerned about cruelty to hens.